When I was a boy we had a small patch of trees behind my apartment building. Forget a grove, it was less than a copse, but we would play amid these dozen sickly trees like it was a forest. One day we came across a dead squirrel, laying in the shadows of the thinly leafed branches, perfectly still and perfect looking. The squirrel looked as if it has been scampering around just seconds before, like it was asleep. My friends and I stood around the squirrel, arguing about what to do with it. Finally I picked up a stick - a long one - and poked at the furry little dead body.
The stick sank into the belly of the squirrel, and its flesh gave way like a wet papercloth. From inside its guts spilled a heap of maggots, a dozen squirming little fat worms slicked with sickening intestinal slime. The squirrel that had looked so perfect on the outside was riddled with decay and parasites within, only a quickly dissolving layer of hide keeping its secret.
That’s The Boy. On the surface The Boy could be seen as a bucolic coming of age movie about a lonely kid living at a remote motel with his hardworking dad. Into the kid’s life comes a confused, end of his rope widower and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. It has all the fixings of a mid-interest Sundance movie, including casting a TV funnyman (Rainn Wilson) as the sad-sack older guy.
But Craig William MacNeill isn’t making that kind of a movie. His coming of age tale is about a serial killer blossoming into his calling, and it’s a slow-ratchet build up to a horrific act of mass murder. On the surface The Boy is a leisurely paced wander through a boy’s summer, but just under the skin it is a writhing mess of maggots.
The larger conceit is that The Boy is the first film in a trilogy, one that will follow the titular boy as he grows up and forms himself into a classic movie slasher, a Michael Myers type. Imagine Boyhood, but for Jason Voorhees, and you see the long game planned by MacNeill, a game that will take the series right up to the first time the killer dons what would be, in his world, his iconic mask. That larger conceit makes The Boy an exciting movie but The Boy is a damn good movie on its own, even without a larger plan sketched out. Standing alone The Boy is strong; with the longview in mind The Boy is essential.
The boy himself is Ted, played by Jared Breeze. Breeze has the flat affect of many naturalistic child actors, but he also has something shockingly cold that surfaces in some scenes. He’s not blank, as many killer kids are - there’s stuff going on behind his eyes, a mixture of hot rage and cold hate. There’s a fantastic sequence where Ted plays with another boy in the motel pool and holds him under the water too long, testing his own boundaries, and Breeze plays the scene like he’s a scientist from an evil planet, calculating how far he can go, analyzing how much longer it will take him to drown this boy. It’s chilling.
Breeze is part of why that scene works, but the other part is the measured, controlled direction of MacNeill, who all but puts us in that pool and forces us to watch, unblinking, unsure if we’re seeing a kid die in front of our eyes. MacNeill is making his feature directorial debut here, but he has the confidence of a filmmaker who is bored with the established boundaries and is playing with new ones. For some this can be frustrating, as MacNeill languidly paces his movie, never rushing to the inevitable. For me it was thrilling, evoking lost afternoons and aimless youth… as seen through the prism of sociopathy.
David Morse is great as the father and motel manager; always exuding a classical American sense of decency, Morse does not seem like the kind of man who could create a monster like Ted. The ways that Morse’s father character tries to deal with his odd, off-putting son only serve to educate the young killer in his bloody trade, and in the end The Boy feels as much like a tragedy about this lost man as it does a horror movie about this terrible kid.
Wilson is good as well, although I always find the very presence of Rainn Wilson slightly distancing. It’s actually used to good effect here; I won’t spoil the twists and turns of the story, but the casting of a familiar comedy goofball in this particular role deepens the general nastiness of the proceedings.
The Boy is a quiet, sick gem that announces not just an exciting new filmmaker but an exciting new world of murder. Not since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer has a movie gotten inside the head of a killer with such cold-blooded artistry.