With “Corn,” Jena Malone proves conclusively that she can carry a movie. Indeed, tyro helmer/scribe David Silver practically dumps pic in her personage Emily’s pregnant lap, filtering other characters through their interactions with her and filtering events through her perception. Emily’s unwed pregnancy leaves her with a tinge of hysteria while rendering her discovery that genetically altered corn is causing birth defects potentially suspect. Though convincingly depicting an ecological cover-up, Silver fails to flesh out plot’s internal horror film dynamic of artificial vs. natural reproduction. Cable and homevid offer fertile fields for DV-shot product.
Emily returns to her family’s sheep farm in rural Pennsylvania after an affair with the politico who has fathered her baby. She becomes intrigued and worried by the sheep’s odd behavior when they go near a strange weed that appears to be a byproduct of an experimental corn. Emily follows the food chain, stirring controversy with her one-woman crusade.
Reviving the “is it paranoid delusion or evil conspiracy?” mode that made a brief comeback in the ’80s, “Corn” suggests sinister organic mutations just beneath the surface of normal, everyday small-town America. Emily constantly traverses blood-spattered butchering and meatpacking areas to arrive in the clean bright aisles of the sterile supermarket where she works.
Meanwhile, back at the sheep ranch, Emily is prey to confused, fragmented flashbacks to her jealous mother and over-attentive father. But pic stays so safely within the confines of genteel environmentalism that hinted-at incest between Emily and her putative father (Don Harvey) is shot down before it even materializes (Emily’s discovery that he is, in fact, her stepfather being visually telegraphed from the get-go).
Indeed, the garbled dreams that regularly and repetitively besiege pic’s heroine in semi-horror mode singularly lack any emotional or atmospheric resonance.
Silver consistently raises and then avoids full-blooded genre developments: Despite indications that all might not be well with Emily’s unborn progeny, Silver avoids all “Rosemary’s Baby”/”Demon Seed” suggestions of monster babies. Similarly, pic opts not to go the “Coma” thriller route: Corporate America pooh-poohs Emily’s contentions as delusional rather than violently shutting her up, while venal self-interest and fear of knowing terrible truths conspire to keep the rest of the town silent.
Even socio-political elements are dryly indicated rather than fully developed as director Silver has it both ways: throwing in an over-the-radio vindication of Emily on the optimistic side and “Nosferatu”-like survival of unnatural vegetation to indicate ongoing menace on the downside. Malone struggles valiantly with her undercooked role but cannot quite reconcile her mandated heroic posture with her supposed lower-class limitations.