'The Boy': SXSW Review

The Boy Film Still - H 2015

The Boy Film Still - H 2015

This low-key effort never musters up the necessary thrills

A 9-year-old boy exhibits disturbing sociopathic tendencies in Craig William Macneill's psychological horror film.

Depicting a budding young sociopath who may well grow up one day into Norman Bates, Craig William Macneill's low-key psychological horror film simmers at far too a burn before reaching its literally incendiary conclusion. Despite the undeniable technical craftsmanship on display and an arresting performance by young Jared Breeze in the title role, The Boy, which recently received its world premiere at SXSW, lacks the pacing and visceral suspense necessary to make it commercially viable.

Set in 1989 in a desolate mountainous region of the American West (effectively doubled for by Colombia), the story revolves around 9-year-old Ted (Breeze), who lives in a dilapidated motel run by his embittered, alcoholic father John (David Morse). Barely managing to concern himself with his establishment's few guests, John essentially allows Ted, who handles most of the housekeeping duties, to fend for himself.

Not a wise move, as the young boy is evidencing a precocious fascination with death, earning small change from his distracted father by removing roadkill that he manages to procure by leaving bait on the only nearby road.

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The habit is relatively harmless at first until he manages to attract a deer, resulting in a serious car accident that leaves the driver with a nasty head injury and his vehicle totaled. The victim, William Colby (Rainn Wilson, sporting an ungainly beard), turns out to be a drifter running away from a recent traumatic event, the results of which are contained in a box whose contents he carefully safeguards.

Forced to temporarily stay at the motel, the disaffected Colby strikes up a friendship of sorts with the young boy, while attracting the suspicion of a local sheriff (Bill Sage) who discovers that his wife was recently killed in a fire.    

The boy, meanwhile, continues his penchant for disturbing behavior, including sneaking into sleeping guests' rooms at night, disabling the car of a couple and their child who've made the mistake of checking in for a night, and expressing his growing frustration by stomping a chicken to death.

But it isn't until he's humiliated by a group of obnoxious partying college students that he fully unleashes his inner demons, resulting in a truly horrifying climactic sequence.

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While it's admirable that director Macneill and his co-scripter Clay McLeod Chapman opted to emphasize mood and psychology over the story's more exploitable elements, it nonetheless results in a listless tedium that isn't helped by the overly long running time. Featuring long stretches in which little is said or happens, the film never quite burrows into the viewer's skin in the way in which it was obviously intended.

Some compensation is provided via the striking, carefully composed visuals, the genuinely tense musical score and the strong performances. Morse makes the father's emotional desolation vividly palpable; Wilson delivers an effectively tamped-down variation on his usual comically creepy persona; and child actor Breeze makes his disturbed character as sympathetic as he is repellant. Unfortunately, for all the effort involved the film mainly makes you yearn to revisit such classics of the genre as The Bad Seed.

Production: SpectreVision, Chiller Films
Cast: David Morse, Jared Breeze, Rainn Wilson, Bill Sage, Mike Vogel, Zuleikha Robinson, Aiden Lovekamp
Director/editor: Craig William Macneill
Screenwriters: Craig William Macneill, Clay McLeod Chapman
Producers: David Noah, Josh C. Waller, Elijah Wood
Executive producers: Rainn Wilson, David Morse, Brian Arnott, Noah Greenberg, Andreas Calderon, Patrick McErlean, Shane O'Smith, Justin Smith, Thomas Vitale
Director of photography: Noah Greenberg
Production designer: Thomas Hallbauer
Costume designer: Tatiana Vera
Composer: Hauschka

No rating, 112 minutes