Directed by: Craig William Macneill
Premise: Set in 1989, a nine-year-old boy (Jared Breeze) lives with his father (David Morse) in a rundown motel. The boy is fascinated with death and his lack of friends and the declining quality of his home life send him on a path toward psychopathy.
What Works: In the last few years there has been a revival of movies about evil children. Pictures like Insidious, Goodnight Mommy, Cooties, and Come Out and Play have depicted young people turning on their parents or taken over by evil forces. One of the best and boldest titles in this trend—and one of the most underseen—is 2015’s The Boy (which is not to be confused with the 2016 film of that name about an evil doll). This movie stands out against other films of its kind in the way that it earnestly deals with its evil subject matter while also creating genuine characters, in particular a boy who is clearly disturbed. When movies portray evil it’s usually hammed up to become a cartoonish version of itself; even great and memorable performances like Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs or Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter tend to make their evil characters something apart from ourselves. They are “the other” and that distance makes the audience comfortable. The title character of The Boy, played by Jared Breeze, is not portrayed that way. He is instead a very real young man. It is apparent from the beginning that he is unusual and has some psychological issues but he’s also recognizable as a pre-teen boy. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and to Breeze’s performance that they keep the character evenly tempered throughout most of the picture; overacting is a common feature of evil performances and sometimes that’s called for. But the burgeoning psychopath of The Boy goes about his business in a way that is almost mundane which makes his activities that much more frightening. The youngster’s increasingly violent behavior occurs in a credible context. Breeze’s character lives with his single father in a rundown motel where there is very little business and fewer people. The isolation and the lack of parental supervision create an environment for this boy’s neurosis to fester. Admirably, the filmmakers don’t take the easy route and suggest that he’s the product of abuse. Rather, the movie implies that a child’s state of mind is plastic and can turn out malformed if it’s deprived of the necessary stimulation and socialization. That’s a more sophisticated take on evil than the movies typically provide.
What Doesn’t: The Boy does not operate in the same way as most horror stories. This film is closer to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer than it is to Poltergeist or Halloween. A lot of mainstream horror films seek to frighten us but they also provide a “clean scare” that is enjoyable to watch and never crosses certain boundaries. The comfortability of those films is also created by adhering to and frequently reinforcing mainstream moral perspectives in which right and wrong are clearly defined and in the end goodness usually carries the day. The Boy isn’t this kind of movie. It’s a slow burn that isn’t out to goose the audience every few minutes but it also goes beyond the mayhem of a movie like Saw. It’s nowhere near as bloody as the torture films of the past decade but, in its own way, The Boy is actually more unsettling. This film puts us in touch with the moral void of a true psychopath and with the banality of evil and then goes the extra step of encasing those qualities in a child. As a result, The Boy is a challenging film and the qualities that make it special are also likely to make it inaccessible to some viewers.
DVD extras: Featurette.
Bottom Line: The Boy passed under the radar of most critics and audiences when it was released in 2015. But fans of serial killer stories and psychological horror should seek out this film. It’s not always easy to watch but it is fascinating and disturbing in the way that a horror film should be.
Episode: #615 (October 9, 2016)