Sometimes a movie starts off going for one tone, then switches to another, making me want to yell, “Stop! Go back!” The Tutor is such a movie. For a while, it’s good, trashy fun. Then it begins taking itself too seriously, dampening the pleasure. If nothing else, the story at least has a pretty cool twist, which I don’t intend to spoil. Put that twist in a better film and you’d really have something special.
Ethan (Garrett Hedlund) is a professional tutor who works for a thriving business. His wife Annie (Victoria Justice) is pregnant, and he desperately needs to earn additional money to prepare for the pending birth. A very lucrative offer comes his way when a billionaire businessman seeks tutoring services for his son, Jackson (Noah Schnapp). Ethan gets several thousand dollars to stay at their mansion for a week. If Jackson likes him, the gig will extend throughout the summer for even more cash.
These people are deeply odd, however. The businessman is never home. Instead, Jackson is there with his suspicious hanger-on cousin Gavin (Johnny Weston) and his hottie girlfriend Jenny (Kabby Borders). Even stranger is that Jackson doesn’t appear to need a tutor. He’s a bright teenager who zips right through the practice tests he’s given. Mannered and with a flat affect, he appears unreasonably interested in Ethan’s personal life. Clearly, Jackson is up to no good, which becomes evident when he falsely accuses his new tutor of physically abusing him.
Early scenes in The Tutor are darkly comedic, as working-class Ethan enters a world of opulence, only to realize that great wealth brings with it equally great eccentricity. It’s funny that Gavin and Jenny just seem to be leeches, and that Jackson doesn’t require educational help, and that Ethan has to enter the mansion from a door in the back because it wouldn’t look right to have him come in from the front. Watching him collect a huge payday for watching these rich weirdos go about their privileged lives speaks to the disparity between the haves and the have-nots in our society. Hedlund expertly conveys Ethan’s sheer bewilderment at how money allows his employers to coast through life, seemingly unencumbered.
Then the second half arrives and the movie becomes a conventional thriller. Ethan has a secret, which Jackson learns and threatens to expose. His false accusation is one of many ways he sets up his tutor, causing Ethan to get investigated by police. There’s a scene where he’s drugged, a blackmail attempt involving racy photos, and a subplot related to Jackson’s dead mother, who Ethan may have known. The Tutor keeps adding complications and out-of-nowhere revelations designed to convey a typical “nothing is what it seems” aura.
During the finale, the movie practically knots itself trying to explain how all the elements fit together. A very intriguing idea resides in here, leading us to see one character much differently at the end than we did at the beginning. Nevertheless, the wickedly comedic side of The Tutor goes out the window as it transforms into the sort of paranoid thriller we’ve seen hundreds of times before. Hedlund remains excellent throughout. It’s the plot and all the convoluted-yet-predictable elements contained therein that turn a perfectly enjoyable social satire into a bland melodrama.
out of four
The Tutor is rated R for language, some violence, and sexual material. The running time is 1 hour and 32 minutes.