Written by: Craig William Macneill, Clay McLeod Chapman (novel)
Directed by: Craig William Macneill
Starring: David Morse, Jared Breeze, and Rainn Wilson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Evil always begins somewhere.
The Boy is a fine illustration of the impact that music, tone, and mood can have on a film. If you were to watch about half of it and ignore the ominous sound cues and its portentous, lingering shots of desolate landscapes, itíd be easy to mistake it for a coming-of-age drama focused on a confused, lonely boy looking to connect with someoneóeven if itís a quiet, middle-aged weirdo who wanders into his life. You could even read his fascination and flirtations with death as a natural, childlike curiosity. Plug your ears and squint, and you might even think The Boy has the capacity for sweetness as a bearded, haunted Rainn Wilson forges an unlikely bond with this poor kid who just wants to get the fuck out of dodge and reunite with his mom in Florida.
But holy shit, you should not do this and get the wrong idea about The Boy, which is actually one of the grimmest, most grounded takes on the creepy kid genre in recent memory. As its moody, unnerving synth score pulses in the background, it transforms into an experience thatís sinister in its inevitability. Youíre watching a coming-of-age tale, but itís essentially one for Norman Bates.
Set at a dusty, off-the-beaten-path motel that seems to actively invite comparisons to Psycho, the film hovers around Ted (Jared Breeze), a 9-year-old boy left mostly to his own devices while his weary father (David Morse) tends to whatís left of the family business. Visitors to the motel are few and far between, so much so that any random passersby are a welcome intrusion on Tedís daily routine, which mostly consists of him scraping roadkill off the road for chump change. Before long, heís even baiting the animals into the road to make the job easier. Not exactly the most riveting life, but also not one that points to a budding sociopath.
Even when visitorsósuch as the aforementioned middle-aged widower (Wilson) and a family of fouródo arrive, thereís nothing that immediately disturbing about Tedís behavior towards any of them. Like his father suggests, he may simply just have trouble adjusting to the presence of others, and his long, lonely days naturally have him seeking their extended companyóeven if it means stealthily dismantling their car engine, effectively forcing them to stay. Little by little, these incidents begin to add up, gradually escalating from impish nonsense to legitimately disturbing behavior. Tedís preoccupation with animal mutilation evolves into a fascination with human flesh, eventually culminating in overt acts of violence.
Tedís descent into violence doesnít exactly occur in a straight line; rather, The Boy is a collection of moments, not unlike Linklaterís Boyhood. Some disturb, but others donít. One minute, Tedís playfully threatening to drown another kid in a pool, the next heís attentively listening to Wilson explain that the box in his car contains the ashes of a dead loved one. Itís the unassuming nature of it all thatís so skin-crawling: director Craig Macneill isnít interested in making a movie that thrives on big, obvious moments, nor is he even trying to unlock the mystery of what drives a relatively normal young boy to violence.
What he is invested in is crafting the suggestion of an explicable evil lying in wait, lurking below the surface of this otherwise quiet, rustic drama. The Boy is perhaps a half-step removed from the early works of David Gordon Green, but Macneillís crucial modulations take it into a different, more unsettling space altogether. Composer Hauschkaís menacing score is an especially vital accent, one that guides the audience towards the realization that the sum total of these moments will not be pleasant. Some sequences feature an unnerving, clacking beat that faintly echoes Harry Manfrediniís signature ďki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma,Ē an aural homage that foreshadows Tedís arc. Explanations (and even pop psychology) may be in short supply in The Boy, but thereís no shortage of a suffocating sense of fatalism.
The only question is where exactly its final destination lies. Credit is due to Breeze, whose excellent poker face consistently keeps audiences guessing. This isnít your typical creepy kid performance since Breeze doesnít rely on obvious tics and showy mannerisms (especially when compared to, say, Daeg Faerchís mugging in Halloween); rather, Ted almost feels like a normal kid, albeit one with some odd habits and a morbid obsession with death. His desire to ditch his dad and live with his mom perhaps even hints at some sort of reconciliationóor maybe even an escape from the awful instincts festering inside him. When pitched against the melancholy turns from Morse and Wilson, Breezeís performance captures a lost soul at a crossroads: in these two adult figures, thereís the potential for guidance that never quite comes. You can sense Ted trying to subconsciously cling to them, but he only meets with ashes, dust, and soot.
Even though The Boy isnít exactly out to trick you with a topsy-turvy climax or any sort of twist, you donít quite grasp what itís really getting at until its final sequence. Itís here you realize that Macneill has essentially been working towards building the sort of mythology that might be covered in either the prologue or the flashback of a slasher movie. Watching the pieces suddenly fall into place is oddly delightful: while much of the film vaguely echoes Psycho, it ends up in Psycho III territoryówhich is to say, itís basically an 80s slasher replete with obnoxious, horndog kids piling into the motel for a prom after-party. Hell, the climax is even ushered in by the sly revelation that the film is actually set in 1989 as Starshipís ďNothingís Gonna Stop Us NowĒ* blares as an ironic herald to the eventual carnage.
Thereís nothing glib or ionic about Ted crossing his final threshold here, at least not on the surface. His actual actionsówhile weirdly sympatheticóare horrific, but itís interesting to see Macneill deftly straddle the line between making audiences cringe and chuckle, much like the films to which he eventually pays tribute. Some of Tedís final lines exchanges (particularly a one-liner that could double as a corny slasher movie tagline) nudge the audience right into his headspace: you canít help but laugh at the wryness here as both Ted and the film embrace the sociopathic mean streak thatís been rumbling throughout.
Since it takes its time in revealing its hand with a 110-minute runtime, The Boy definitely operates at its own deliberate speed. Technically adapted from exactly one chapter of Clay McCleod Chapmanís novel Miss Corpus, itís low on sustained plot, yet rich in establishing a mythology that will apparently play out over two more films that will track Tedís further development, meaning the slasher genre will have its own Antoine Doinel. In the wake of Stevan Menaís ill-fated, aborted Malevolence trilogy, this is a welcome take on a genre thatís often forged icons without truly trying to comprehend them.
*The use of this particular song furthers the argument that The Boy isnít too far removed from quirky indie dramedy territory thanks to its recent appearance in The Skeleton Twins.
The Boy is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory; the disc includes a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that further details Macneillís plans for this trilogy of films.
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