If we’ve learned anything from movies like “The Omen,” “The Bad Seed,” and “The Good Son,” it’s that kids can be little demons. Director Nicholas McCarthy’s “The Prodigy” takes that concept a bit further, positing that children have the ability to carry the past lives of demonic, sociopathic souls and act on their deranged feelings. At least that’s what we glean from a brief “Nightline” clip about reincarnation shown in the film — which is possibly the clever inspiration for Jeff Buhler’s screenplay. While it lacks gripping, nail-biting tension, the unnerving horror that underscores the family drama brings it to life.
Minutes after a ruthless serial killer (Paul Fauteux) is shot to death in Ohio, a baby boy is born to a loving married couple in nearby Pennsylvania. Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John Blume (Peter Mooney) have sacrificed a lot to bring their boy Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) into the world, calling him their “miracle” child. And their unconditional love doesn’t stop once he begins to demonstrate disturbing behavior.
Miles shows extreme intelligence, rapidly blazing through development milestones and test placement exams. But alarming traits manifest after he turns eight. He sets a trap in the basement to maim his babysitter (Elisa Moolecherry). He suffers from night terrors, sleep-talking in Hungarian and flailing around in bed. He also clobbers a schoolmate with a wrench when he doesn’t get his way. This garners the attention of reincarnation expert Dr. Arthur Jacobson (Colm Feore), who might as well be named “Dr. Exposition” since he’s saddled with dispensing most of it. He advises Sarah that a dark presence is piggybacking on her son’s life-force. To get it out, they must determine who is causing this pain and uncover his motives. It becomes a race against time to figure out how to save poor Miles.
But much of the mystery McCarthy and Buhler attempt to craft is rendered moot following that opening scene in which they showed a female victim escaping from the serial killer’s home and his subsequent demise. We’re ahead of the Blumes in that regard. We know what the evil soul’s motives are and we know it’ll never be satiated. What we don’t know is if — or how — it can be defeated. That said, Sarah devises a plan that, while ludicrous, befits a character stuck in an impossible situation.
As the narrative swerves into familiar territory, Schilling and Scott’s performances offer some relief. The actress capably channels her Lee Remick-inspired role, infusing the caring, devoted matriarch with vulnerability and verisimilitude. The push-pull of Sarah’s anguished inner conflict feels palpable thanks to her restrained work. But it’s young Scott who wows with his handling of the sudden dramatic shifts and nuanced facets of his character’s duality. He doesn’t just change his facial expressions, but his entire physicality. That’s a feat even for a seasoned adult, such as James McAvoy in “Glass” and “Split,” let alone a child actor. Scott succeeds in taunting us, making us eagerly await his mischievous, murderous exploits. Though some might be disappointed that Miles’ salty language is noticeably dubbed, Scott’s abilities are impressive nonetheless.
Setting the narrative primarily in the changing seasons from fall to winter adds subtle layers, reinforcing the shifting nature of the tortured young man’s personality. McCarthy and DP Bridger Nielson craft a distinctive aesthetic via a subdued, cool palette of blue and gray tones. They hold back from stylizing much of the imagery, but pepper in a few striking shots: Miles removes his skeleton face paint in front of a mirror, literally reflecting his dual psyches; Miles is framed against chinoiserie wallpaper, suggesting another persona lurking in the background. With jump scares blessedly kept to a minimum, composer Joseph Bishara’s signature sour strings weave innocuously into the film’s fabric. The resulting feeling is prickly, chilly, and disquieting.