Based on a novel by Stephen King, “Needful Things” describes the opening of an antique shop in a small town, called ‘Needful Things’. The proprietor, Leland Gaunt (Max Von Sydow) always seems to have the very item stocked that a person needs, that touches some deep desire or fills some hole in their hearts. The price is not in the normal currency, being worked out in tasks set by Gaunt, tasks that serve to cause mayhem in the town.
Max Von Sydow was a brilliant actor who I have loved in many movies. There is no mystery here about his intentions – he is obviously the antagonist right from the start. The trope of the mysterious stranger coming into town to cause trouble is a dead giveaway. He tailors his interactions with each person in a way that fits them and their needs. He is paternal to the boy Brian, flirty and charming with Netty, like a counsellor with Hugh (“we’ll get your life back”), pragmatic with Danforth, seductive with Polly. Von Sydow moves seamlessly between all these personas, without jarring the audience or making you feel like he’s playing different characters. Instead, we know he’s playing a different game – he’s playing with the other characters, toying with them. The face he puts on is just as much a part of the package as the item he sells. Von Sydow is an excellent choice for this character and strongly carries the movie.
(On a side note, he also has some of the best lines, such as:
You’re disgusting, Dan. I like that in a person.)
From the first interaction with the child Brian we know he is bad news. He offers the boy something that seems innocuous, a baseball card. It’s a valuable one, but Brian does not fall into this situation because of the monetary value of the card. We find out that Brian and his father used to collect cards together. This is spoken of as something that is in the past, though the movie does not specify if the father has died, divorced his mother, or simply run off. Whatever the reason, Brian is looking to fill that void left by his father’s absence, and it is this that turns the baseball card into a needful thing, for which the child would do anything.
This is what I like most about this story. There is only one character whose item gives financial gain, and even then it is more about him getting out of money trouble, than simple profit. I like the psychological truthfulness that the things people will compromise themselves over are often about more than just money, that a decent person might be tempted to do something rotten if they think it’s going to give them peace. Netty, for example, gets a not particularly attractive china figurine. However, it is the exact replica of something she owned that her abusive husband broke. To her, having that restored to her and whole is like having her own brokenness made whole again. Of course, it is all a lie, and for many of the residents it will end in tragedy.
Gaunt is opposed by Sheriff Alan Pangbourn, played by Ed Harris. Harris is also an extremely good actor, and I would go so far as to say he has the harder role as the good guy. He nails it, though. The character’s external calm shakes every so often, revealing a storm underneath. By the climax, this anger of Pangbourn’s is overwhelming. Earlier on in the story, Gaunt asks him if he wants anything from the shop and he responds quite innocently, ‘I have everything I need.’ This, of course, is the crux of the matter for Gaunt. He cannot tempt Pangbourn in the way he has tempted others, because there is no needful thing. Ultimately, Gaunt is hoping that Pangbourn’s sin, his fury, will be his undoing. Pangbourn rises above this at the climax – he has made that mistake once in his past and he won’t repeat it. Harris has the often-difficult task of delivering the obligatory rousing speech to the townsfolk to get them to see that they’ve been manipulated. These types of moments in stories like this can often fall flat, but I think Harris’ delivery was convincing and sincere enough to carry it.
There is some black humour in the movie that certainly help it along its way. The two so-called spiritual leaders of the town, the Catholic priest and the Baptist minister, are so busy feuding with each other, that they cannot see past their prejudices to help others. Their yelling of prayers over the bodies of the dead women is a moment like this – this is a tragedy, but these two idiots are still turning it into a competition. Also, the humour is used to take the movie towards tragedy, as what seems to be initially no more than mean-spirited pranks escalate to violent conflict. Gaunt knows that he can start people on the road to hell with something that doesn’t seem too bad. Their own choices will take that the rest of the way.
As Gaunt says at the climax, and he is quite correct, technically he hasn’t done anything. All he has done is created a temptation, made an offer. Nobody in the town has their arm twisted, everyone has made their own choices. That is, of course, the way the world works. The devil never MADE anybody do anything. Evil is a choice. If there is a moral to the story, it is this – you can choose evil, and you can choose to stop. Ultimately most of the town choose to stop, and the character of Danforth (played with gleeful over-the-top enthusiasm by the late JT Walsh) does appear to have had some kind of breakdown at the end, so we can be forgiven for wondering how much choice he is capable of making.
“Needful Things” is a good movie because, with the help of an excellent cast, it depicts the nature of evil in a more realistic manner than you might expect from a fantasy. Good and evil aren’t black and white – they are just normal people living their lives and making choices. I think that’s something it would benefit everyone to remember.