The Harvest (1993)

Mexico has for many years functioned in U.S. movies as shorthand for a “foreign” sphere, free from social and behavioral constraints. Films as varied as John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns (Major Dundee [1965] and The Wild Bunch [1969]), and Robert Altman’s revisionist piss-take on Raymond Chandler (The Long Goodbye [1974]) equate crossing the border with sloughing off the appendages that accompany citizenship, as if passing through immigration constitutes an erasure rather than a ratification of identity. At the same time, treating Mexico as alien obliterates its own identity, subsuming individuals into a caricature that titillates our prejudices but rarely encourages our intelligence.

David Marconi’s engaging paranoid thriller The Harvest looks at first as if it will also set an innocent gringo against threatening locals. The Harvest skillfully crosses borders of perception. His fictional locale, Costa Azule, teems with fawning functionaries, dithering hotel clerks, haughty officials and conspirators. Intrigue lurks round every corner, whether down a dark alley or under the bright inspection of the noonday sun. The look of The Harvest benefits from Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s evocative eye (he subsequently shot Tim Burton’s lush horror homage Sleepy Hollow [1999] and Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mamá También [2000]), intermingling clichés of Mexico guide books with a garish confusion.

When harried, hangdog scriptwriter Charlie Pope (Miguel Ferrer) travels South to beef up the material in a screenplay, what he uncovers provides few answers and more than a few scars. He has worked two years on a still unfinished screenplay about an unsolved murder, much to the consternation of his harried producer, Bob Lakin (Harvey Fierstein).

Marconi’s own screenplay is redeemed by its interest in messing with our minds rather than trotting out the requisite local color and visual shortcuts. We’re never entirely sure how much of what we see is fact and what emerges from Charlie’s overstimulated and chemically dependent consciousness. Though the DVD offers no letterboxing or extras, The Harvest rewards those attracted to twisty, tantalizing walks on the wild side. To that end, Charlie’s research reveals that the victim engaged in pederastic relations with boys. Various individuals insinuate that the principal investigator, Detective Topo (Henry Silva), was the uncle of one of the adolescents, and may well have played a role in the crime. Told that he can track down more clues at a local gay bar — where we catch a quick, bizarre shot of Ferrer’s cousin, George Clooney, in drag — Harry encounters fey Noel Guzmann (Anthony John Denison), who insinuates more than he states about local conditions. The writer’s desire to unscramble Guzmann’s information collides with his own attraction to a young, blonde woman dancing on the premises, Natalie (Leilani Sarelle). They leave together, and while about to swim in the adjacent ocean, Harry is attacked by several men, including Guzmann. Unconscious, he is wheeled into a makeshift operating theatre, and, five days later, awakens to find one of his kidneys is removed.

The success of this upscale B-movie, dumped straight-to-video in 1993, depends as much on the zigs and zags of Marconi’s script as it does Ferrer’s singular performance. Typically cast as villains or unsympathetic secondary leads, Ferrer articulates an unlikely form of chivalry that’s simultaneously suffused with flop sweat, fueled by acidic sarcasm, and one step away from absolute obnoxiousness. The minor characters etch equally indelible impressions. Sarelle infuses her undeniable attractiveness with a shifty ambivalence, and the choice of veteran bad guy Henry Silva conjures up his long career in cinematic malevolence. Denison’s bleached blonde hair and insouciant manner make him both dandified and diabolic.

The last half of The Harvest only becomes even more nightmarish as Harry attempts to discover who is responsible for his surgery or the murder, and how he might survive to finish his script. Marconi evocatively interweaves a straight-ahead thriller plot with scenes that may be altogether hallucinatory. While the scar on Harry’s body validates that an operation did occur, the perpetrators and motivation are up for grabs. As The Harvest‘s plot occasionally intersects wit Harry’s script, individuals from his life take on unexpected roles or adopt unmotivated characteristics.