There are two key questions at the heart of The Boy:
1. How far will one couple go to appease their psychotic child?
2. How much of a ruse will an abused woman tolerate in order to flee her tormenter?
The answers? Too far and too much.
Greta (Lauren Cohan) is a Montana native so desperate to escape her violent ex-boyfriend she takes a babysitting job in the UK. But she’s not looking after an actual child. No. She is tasked with caring for a doll that resembles a child.
This obviously requires an explanation. The eccentric Heelshires (the very good Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) have never gotten over the loss of their 8-year-old son, Brahms. So, as a way of coping, they pretend the aforementioned doll is him. (Greta lost her own unborn child after her ex beat her.)
They clothe him, sit him at the dinner table, read to him, play his favourite classical music quite loudly and give him goodnight kisses after they put him to bed. They’ve been performing this charade, this meticulous routine for 20 years. Greta isn’t the first babysitter they’ve hired. (They instruct her to follow 10 typewritten rules altogether. She ignores pretty much all of them at first. Not smart, as it turns out.)
As if that wasn’t strange enough, the replacement Brahms seemingly disappears without warning. On her first night alone in the Heelshires’ sprawling mansion (they’re taking a much needed vacation), completely creeped out by the thing, she covers his snow white face with a blanket while she reads a magazine and guzzles red wine. At one point later on, she notices the blanket is off. Did he remove it himself when she was out of the room or did it just fall?
On a different night, she hears a child crying. When she goes to investigate, she notices a tear falling from the silent doll’s eye. But then, a drop of water from the ceiling hits his face. Did that cause the first tear?
Going back to the very first day she arrives at the mansion, after removing her boots and getting a small tour & instructions from the family, when she goes back to retrieve them, they’ve disappeared. Mrs. Heelshire blames Brahms. “He can be playful,” she says matter-of-factly. Later on, when Greta opens her bedroom door, they magically return. When she closes it and opens it again, he also leaves her a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (She made one for herself earlier in the kitchen.) At times, she can see movement in the small space underneath her closed door. Mr. Heelshire tells her he’s “too timid” to do this while being watched.
Greta’s only company is a flirtatious grocer, Malcolm (Rupert Evans), who arrives every so often to awkwardly hit on her and deliver food. Their gradual bond is awfully convenient for what’s to come. When they eventually give in to their supposed attraction, a jealous Brahms cranks up the classical to interrupt their abbreviated, spiceless makeout.
When they make plans to go out to a club, after taking an impromptu shower, Greta notices all her clothes and jewelry are suddenly missing. That leads her up to the attic where she inevitably gets locked in and can’t get Malcolm’s attention when he arrives for their date. Despite dropping in constantly unannounced in other scenes (the obligatory False Alarm scares that seem half-hearted in their execution), on this occasion he curiously drives off. Shortly afterwards, she spots a shadowy figure (a shot so poorly lit it took me a few times to actually see it) and passes out.
Meanwhile, as the days go on, she keeps hearing unexplained noises and Brahms never seems to stay in place. She also starts having nightmares about the damn thing, one of which inspires the scariest moment in the film, which isn’t really saying that much, honestly.
For a little over an hour, The Boy wants you to think you’re watching a rip-off of Annabelle, the hokey spin-off of The Conjuring, itself one of the most overrated horror films of the decade. But then, something terrible happens to the doll, and suddenly the last half hour becomes another Halloween-style slasher flick complete with a masked villain.
Which leads us back to those two key questions. As it turns out, Brahms the doll is not possessed by any demonic spirit. He’s a prop for a sinister scheme cooked up by the Freeshires who have so much guilt over their dark secret, they pull a Nicole Kidman in The Hours without informing Greta of their plans. How far will they go to appease their son? They’re willing to recruit a potential victim for him. Sick and truly puzzling. No wonder their chauffeur eyes Greta so closely in the opening scene.
Greta’s violent ex (a generic heel who lacks intensity), who’s been stalking her sister’s family back home in her absence, eventually learns of her whereabouts. Greta is stunned to see him playing pool in the mansion one night. (Like Malcolm, he doesn’t believe in knocking. Does she ever lock the front door?) He asserts their break-up didn’t count and insists that she’ll be leaving with him first thing in the morning. How desperate is she to shake off this misogynistic loser? She buys into the idea that Brahms the doll will take care of this problem after she commands him to do so. Things turn out not quite like she expected. In fact, they go from bad to worse.
The Boy really wants to be an M. Night Shyamalan movie, quiet for the most part with unexpected swerves. Unfortunately, it’s so wrapped up in its mysterious, highly contrived plot it forgets to be consistently scary. It fails to build enough tension to properly pay off the twisted Brahms portion of the story alone. It’s all foreplay with no climax.
The maternal Lauren Cohan is an appealing lead who deserves a smarter character to play. Her initial instinct that someone is fucking with her is absolutely correct. But sadly, she doesn’t stick with it. She foolishly buys into the idea the doll is alive. In fact, she actually bonds with it. Much like the Heelshires, she uses the doll as a conduit for her buried, unresolved feelings towards her dead fetus.
I had misplaced suspicions about Malcolm because he kind of resembles an adult Brahms. Despite that, I wasn’t charmed by his lameness. For instance, pretending to be able to sum up a person’s history through their chewing gum is weak. He’s only useful when he fills in some of the blanks about the Freeshires’ troubled history. Why neither of them don’t just run for zee hills well before the third act is beyond me.
By the end, the filmmakers are clearly hoping for a second chapter. The ultimate fate of Brahms, the real one, is purposefully ambiguous. Who is that person walking around and making repairs? But how would they accomplish this without relying on the same bogus conceit? And why bother with a sequel when they didn’t get it right the first time?
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, August 31, 2016