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Anatomy of a Monster: LITTLE CHILDREN's Jackie Earle Haley

The title of LITTLE CHILDREN (airing November 24 at 8P and throughout the month)—cowriter-director Todd Field’s chilling 2006 adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s tale of love, lust and lies in suburbia—works on many levels. It describes the type of people who would commit selfish, impulsive actions like the pair of unhappily married people (Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson) at the heart of the story who engage in a passionate but ultimately destructive affair with no regard for how it will affect others, especially their own, yes, little children. It also applies to those innocent young residents of a sleepy New Jersey burg whose parents feel they need to protect them from a convicted sex offender, Ronald “Ronnie” James McGorvey (THE BAD NEWS BEARS grad Jackie Earle Haley, in a career-redefining performance), who’s moved back into their neighborhood. And it also encapsulates the personality of Ronnie, who’s infantilized by his smothering mother (the heartbreakingly good Phyllis Somerville) and terrorized into believing he could never survive without her, leaving him in a state of perpetually arrested adolescence and unable to express his sexual longings in a mature manner—and with his peers.

But Ronnie’s New Jersey neighbors don’t regard him as a pathetic overgrown man-child that he is. They treat him like a monster and engage in violent fantasies about castrating him. No matter that he was only ever convicted of indecent exposure, not sexual assault, and he’s served his time and paid his debt to society. They plaster the front door of his mother’s house (where he lives) with WARNING posters, paint the word EVIL on his front walk and all but take up torches to try and run him out of town a la the villagers in FRANKENSTEIN.

This monstrous metaphor is apt, since Ronnie’s character—and Haley’s searing, Oscar-nominated performance—seem expertly stitched together from previous movie boogeymen, real and perceived. The Frankenstein monster himself doesn’t mean to hurt the little girl by the lake, but his limited intelligence and impulse control leads to an act of unthinkable violence. Similarly, we see Ronnie struggle with his impulses when he goes to the town pool—”I was just trying to cool off!,” he insists—and swims underwater like the shark in JAWS hunting his prey. But before we know if he’ll act on his twisted desires, the pool clears out in a panic faster than when that Baby Ruth bar floated to the surface in CADDYSHACK. (“You listen to me, you piece of shit, you stay away from the town pool, you hear me?” rages one of his tormentors.)

Like Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Ronnie becomes a feared pariah in town based more on rumors from the past and projections of what he might do in the future than on any actual actions. True, he ruins his one attempt at a date—set up by his mother, of course, who condescendingly dresses him up and makes the reservations for the dinner—by masturbating in front of his fragile, ex-mental patient companion (Jane Adams). And he childishly threatens her—”Better not tell on me or I’ll fuckin’ get you!”—prefiguring Haley’s later role as the reincarnation of vengeful abuse victim Freddy Krueger in the 2010 reboot of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. But he doesn’t assault her, nor, arguably, break the law—only social conventions and any concept of human decency.

In that sense, Ronnie’s less culpable than Dr. Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), the seemingly friendly neighborhood pedophile in Todd Solondz’s equally dark 1998 suburban New Jersey opus HAPPINESS. Bill restrains himself from molesting his own son—making him feel unwanted, as the boy confesses in one of the film’s most wrenching scenes—but can’t curb his dangerously horrific attraction to his child’s friends. And through he’s raised under similar circumstances, Ronnie is less evil (for lack of a better word) than PSYCHO’s Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), whose unhealthy attachment to and subsequent loss of his mother leads to a psychotic break, a splintered personality and multiple murders.

When Ronnie’s mother dies—precipitated by an attack by the town’s self-appointed guardian (Noah Emmerich), a disgraced coward—he falls apart, literally going cuckoo when his mother’s clock crows and smashing her beloved figurines. But he doesn’t lash out at others, he turns the violence inward, enacting his neighbor’s self-fulfilling prophecy by castrating himself while sitting on a playground swing set and weeping, “Mommy’s gone…she’s the only one who loved me…I’ll be good now.”

Sounds kind of like a little child, doesn’t it?

Catch LITTLE CHILDREN on Saturday, Nov. 24 at 8P on Sundance Channel!