the_boy_1Year: 2015
Director:Craig William Macneill
Writer(s):Craig William Macneill, Clay McLeod Chapman
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: Unrated
Color, 105 mins

Synopsis: An intimate portrait of a 9-year-old sociopath’s growing fascination with death. (Source)

Every single one of us, whether we think about it or not has a relationship with death. It’s the secret motivation behind everything we do, and the way we deal with that unsaid fact is an innate part of who we are. Craig William Macneill’s stunning debut, The Boy, deals with this idea in the most brutal way, crafting an intimate portrait of a 9-year-old boy in what is no doubt one of the most disturbing films of the year. Taking a page from classic slasher films, Macneill strips the genre to its very core, pushing the psychological elements unbearably to the fore for a new take on the subject. Because of the unflinchingly dark nature of the film, I won’t recommend this to everyone, but I also have to say that it’s a powerful film, confronting the mortality we all avoid in the most deliberately unsettling way.

The story focuses on a young boy named Ted (Jared Breeze). He lives at a motel his dad owns, which was once considered to reside over a hot tourist spot, but is now considered to be off the beaten path. Keeping up appearances, the two maintain the lonely residence (which is a shoe-in for the Bates Motel) for the occasional guest. Ted’s also an entrepreneur of sorts, scraping up roadkill from the road for quarters in the hopes of earning a ticket to go live with his mother in Florida. His father John (David Morse), though a well-meaning man isn’t the best at connecting with his lonely son, and it drives Ted increasingly further away. In an act of both curiosity, boredom and desperation, Ted lures a deer into the highway in hopes of collecting a big score, knowing little of the dangerous consequences. On the run from his own problems, a stranger named William (Rainn Wilson) crashes straight into the deer one late night, totaling his car and being forced to take residency at Ted and John’s motel. The enigmatic William strikes up a kinship with Ted sets off a chain of events which will change Ted’s life forever.

As mentioned, the film is really a triumph of smart minimalism and slowly mounting dread, resulting in a perfect storm of bad parenting, isolation, curiosity and death. What we’re witnessing before our eyes is an insidious psychological portrait that turns out to be a serial killer origin story. Macneill unfolds the events and themes intricately through actions and detail, using dialogue only minimally throughout to really get us into Ted’s headspace and his relationship with death – the way he profits from it in a myriad of ways, though naively, without really fully understanding its consequences. It’s a dark approach that spins coming of age and slasher tropes into a story that blends true horror with tragedy rather than exploitation. This pushes the film into a shocking and unimaginably dark ending that doesn’t feel tacked on for the sake of provocation, but feels earned, and the only natural conclusion, no matter how twisted it is.

the_boy_2At the center of the film is one wallop of a performance from prepubescent Jared Breeze. His naturalism to the precocious character is what makes the film so disturbing. It’s a completely empathetic performance thanks to his innate innocence, and there’s a magnetism to him that keeps us completely fascinated but at times repulsed. Despite the difficult balance, Breeze pulls it off with ease and hypnotic abandon. To balance off of him, David Morse, as his father John and Rainn Wilson as the mysterious drifter William are great in their respective roles, offering two different types of paternal influence which challenge Breeze’s Ted and bring all of his unsaid feelings to a breaking point.

From it’s moody visuals and deliberately down-tempo pace, The Boy gets under our skin and is an precisely crafted tale about the darkness of the human heart, as well as a horror film where death finally matters. At the very core, Ted’s story is one of longing, trying to better his situation and doing the most with what he’s given. I’m not trying to justify his actions, and the film doesn’t necessarily take sides, but it does start a relevant conversation about how easy it is to slip into darkness with the most innocent of motivations. A breathlessly acted spiral of suffocating tension, The Boy is focused storytelling at its finest, devastating, and an unforgettable portrait of a mind at the brink of collapse and rebirth.