‘Needful Things’ (1993) – Critics Must’ve Watched a Different Movie!


The film ‘Needful Things’ has a lowly 26% Rotten Tomatoes score. Does that mean it’s bad? Not necessarily.  Here are some great things about it!

[SPOILER ALERT: I discuss the movie Needful Things here. Any time someone discusses a movie, they may reveal plot details. In fact, I may provide an annoying level of detail…but you should know that by now, right?]

Why I’m Defending ‘Needful Things’

I first saw Fraser C. Heston‘s Needful Things as a younger lad, and I had high expectations. By that point in time, I knew Stephen King reasonably well, and liked movies based on his stuff. However, I didn’t know what Needful Things was about, or that I’d come to regard it as a classic. Indeed, all these years later, I have no idea what’s up with the critics. This film has so many great aspects, so many memorable moments, unique characters, quality acting, cool quotes, decent action, high intensity, drama, suspense, you name it!

For example, Roger Ebert said Needful Things “only has one note, which it plays over and over, sort of a Satanic water torture. It’s not funny and it’s not scary and it’s all sort of depressing.” Basically, nothing about that quote is justified, in my view. Needful Things has a lot of different “notes.” Hell, if anything, I’d say there’s a danger of it having too many notes.

There’s actually a lot going on in this movie, and it’s brimming with complex themes. The most obvious theme: What price will people pay for the objects they most desire in life? Would they be willing to viciously prank each other, lie, cheat, even kill? In this sense, Leland Gaunt’s store is an agent of chaos. That by itself is a decent idea.

The Characters

Max von Sydow as Leland Gaunt. (Needful Things, Columbia Pictures)

Also, look at the characters. Obviously you have Max von Sydow as Leland Gaunt. Aside from giving an excellent performance, his role as a sort of refined evil force — the Devil, if you will — offers plenty of “notes” in itself. Some of those notes are quotes. Here’s a nice one: “When I started out I was just a peddler moving across the blind face of a distant land. Moving, always moving. Always gone… and in the end I’d always offer weapons. And they’d always take them. Of course I was gone before they realized what they’d purchased.”

Boom! That’s a great quote, right, or am I being insane? Want another one? When another character says the word “Jesus!,” Gaunt replies, “The young carpenter from Nazareth? I knew him well. Promising young man. He died badly.” Leland Gaunt’s dark humor is almost reflexive at points, and indicates a guy — or a force — who’s been around, seen many things, and knows fully what to expect. It seems this would be true not only from Satanic magic, but also from experience.

You see, if you actually pay attention to the story, its characters, its themes, etc., there are so many layers of inquiry that one can enter, even regarding this one character! What actually animates him? How omniscient is he? Is he capable of good? At the very least, story elements suggest he prefers a passive role, loving to see people “do it to themselves.” It makes him a unique character, who has power for evil, but plays almost a managerial role.

There are many great conflicts, fed and intertwined further by Mr. Gaunt’s influence. For example, Nettie Cobb (Amanda Plummer) and Wilma Jerzyck (Valri Bromfield) hate each other. However, it’s not Nettie who pranks the crazed Mrs. Jerzyck, but a boy named Brian Rusk (Shane Meier) — who does it all for a Mickey Mantle baseball card. Nettie Cobb herself pranks Danforth ‘Buster’ Keeton III (J. T. Walsh), who in turn blames it on his enemy, Sheriff’s Deputy Deputy Norris Ridgewick (Ray McKinnon), and those two duke it out, etc.

Buster: A Deeper Look

J. T. Walsh as Danforth ‘Buster’ Keeton III, who’s had just about enough of this s**t! (Needful Things, Columbia Pictures)

And speaking of Danforth ‘Buster’ Keeton III — what a performance! What a memorable character! If nothing else, I love Buster, and I feel sorry for anyone who can’t appreciate this sleazy yet oddly relatable character. Personally, I don’t puff on cigars while playing with a mechanical racetrack. However, seeing the sheer, childish glee on his face as the horses go ’round the track, I can almost perfectly understand his obsession! Plus, the horses promise to earn him some money, and to ease the burden of his gambling debts, so he can re-pay money he swiped from the town treasury. It’s a great story unto itself, actually.

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You get the sense of his moral and mental breakdown, boosted in part by Mr. Gaunt. Buster’s decline is hinted at in earlier parts of the movie, such as his paranoid remark about people spying on townsfolk through mirrors in public taverns, and laughing at their folly. Of course, things really take off for Buster. After Nettie leaves the defamatory parking tickets in his home, who couldn’t understand Buster’s rage? Of course, Buster naturally assumes Ridgewick was involved, and suspects the man’s sleeping with his wife, Myrtle (Gillian Barber).

After having a hilarious fight with Ridgewick — where Buster taunts him with a childish, “Na na na na na naaaw!” — the man tragically explodes at Myrtle. Afterwards, when Buster tells Leland, “I just killed my wife. Is that bad?,” Leland responds, “Hey, these things happen.” It’s a wonderful moment of pitch black humor, that apparently most critics can’t get (maybe because they’re too normal or whatever).

Then, when Buster addresses the whole town with a bomb strapped to his chest, what’s not to love? “You all sound like you’re at an AA meeting! Hi, my name’s Dan, and I’m here to blow up your f***ing town!!!” Great, funny stuff, and what’s amazing is that — somehow, some way — I identified with him.  It’s not just his humor, or even his mannerisms, but the way in which his mind operates.  It’s not like my thinking is entirely like his (and thank goodness for that!), but I can understand and appreciate him as someone who hates what he’s become, but knows nothing else.  He’s a creature of habit, which makes him a trapped man, which makes him susceptible to further weaknesses down the line.

Closing Up Shop

Before I shut up, I should also mention that Ed Harris does well as Sheriff Alan Pangborn (although he’s a bit straight-laced and boring). And heaven forbid I overlook the burgeoning, comical conflagration between Father Meehan (W. Morgan Sheppard) Reverend Rose (Don S. Davis)!

Anyway, I guess my main point is, critics suck sometimes — and I say this as someone who’s technically a critic. We often get it wrong. So take what we say with a grain of salt, because sometimes we condemn movies that are great, or praise ones that are already overrated (not the case here). So put on Needful Things and watch the world burn from the safety of your couch!

Next: Dead End: Spooky, Disharmonious Thrill Ride

What do you think? Is Needful Things underrated? Let us know how you feel about the film in the comments!