The wonderfully silly premise of The Boy is wasted on this movie
The Boy STX Entertainment
Director: William Brent Bell
Screenplay: Stacey Menear
Starring: Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle, Ben Robson and Jett Klyne
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 37 minutes
January 22, 2016
(out of four)
The Boy is the kind of stupid that could be really great if the filmmakers actually realized how stupid it was. If you're making a movie about a porcelain doll that thinks it's a real boy, you better have a damn good idea what tone you're going for, and it damn well better not be straight down the middle. But that's exactly how director William Brent Bell plays it - like a familiar, straightforward haunted-house (or haunted-inanimate-object) chiller, handsomely presented but lacking any personality of its own.
This horror movie about a possibly-sentient, possibly-possessed, definitely-creepy porcelain likeness of a 12-year-old boy never pushes that premise into the surreal, nor the truly Gothic, nor stylized territory of any kind. Neither does it exploit the inherent camp value and make the story into something deliciously demented. No, it doesn't do anything like that, or anything at all to energize or re-frame a story that is absurd on its very face.
That absurdity is its built-in handicap as well as its greatest strength, but the film itself is oddly unwilling to pull it in any particular direction. It's more inclined to let the plot developments plod along as mechanically as they can, a problem that becomes most conspicuous late in the game, when various plots and revelations converge in a climactic half-hour that's mundane when it should be bonkers.
But let me back up a bit, because the film falls into a self-inflicted narrative pitfall from the very start. Here's the thing about abusive ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands in movies. If you mention them at all, even in passing, they're bound to show up later in the movie. There are no exceptions. They simply can't help themselves, nor can the lazy screenwriters who write them. It's kinda Chekhov's Gun, kinda Beetlejuice. The Boy is an especially egregious example, because the whole story revolves around a woman, Greta (Lauren Cohan), who has moved across the ocean - from the U.S. to a remote estate in England that doesn't even have wireless service. And yet when she's on the phone with her sister in an early scene and "casually" mentions her violent ex Cole, and how Cole just cannot, just must not, ever find out where she is, we begin counting down the minutes until he inexorably shows up at the front door.
Hilariously, when the possibility of Cole (Ben Robson) discovering Greta's location crops up, she seems primarily concerned about him writing her a letter. When he physically tracks her down, she's shocked. We are not. One way or another, his appearance is the story's most important pivot, arriving just when the film is still vaguely salvageable.
As it plays out, though, his presence clutters a narrative that up until that point had been relatively lean. The real problem is that Bell and screenwriter Stacey Menear find so little purpose for the character. He shows up, gets jealous of Greta's burgeoning love interest Malcolm (Rupert Evans), and then gets roped into dealing with the vaguely supernatural, vaguely dangerous existence of this mysterious doll. His name is Brahms, by the way. The doll. Or the boy, if you prefer. Or the beloved son, to Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), who hired Greta to take care of him while they went away on business.
Cohan, who appears in I believe all but one scene and is frequently by herself on screen, grounds the film nicely. She has a relatable emotional candor and, especially in the early scenes, is naturalistic and at-ease in a way we don't often get to see from her in The Walking Dead.
We often observe Greta from distant or unusual angles, suggesting not only the feeling that she's being watched but that, lead character though she may be, the film may not necessarily, or entirely, be approaching things from her point of view.
What begins as an attempt at a summer of peace for Greta backfires so badly that, by the final 20 minutes, the film is entirely about three very different male figures all vying for her affection. The nice-guy grocer, the abusive ex, the mysterious ceramic child. But Bell refuses to really address the discomfiting reality of that scenario, and is all too reluctant to embrace the heightened, mad qualities it offers. I can't imagine a version of this movie having less fun with the premise than this one does. There is an eerie Gothic thriller in here, and there is a loony, preposterous madhouse of a horror film on the other side. And there's plenty of room in between. Somehow The Boy found the combination of choices that takes advantage of virtually none of its innate strengths.