Retro Review: The Boys

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David Wenham in The Boys.

The Boys isn’t either horror or documentary, but it feels very much like both.”

Written by David Morgan-Brown

Before Animal Kingdom and Snowtown, there was another Australian film that portrayed how terrifying and brooding an ordinary suburban setting could be. The boys that are referred to in the title are the Sprague brothers, with eldest Brett (David Wenham) the leader of the pack, along with Stevie (Anthony Hayes), who feels stuck in his place, and Glen (John Polson), who has the chance to escape. They are all rather boyish in behaviour, as they share a close, yet hostile relationship, they are all lazy, disenfranchised, bored, have very little prospects in their lower class environment, and turn out to have deeply immoral criminal tendencies.

The film takes place over one day (or 18 hours, to be exact), beginning with the release of Brett from prison for an “altercation” with a bottle-shop clerk. He returns home to his family who have been awaiting his release, but as intermediate flash-forwards reveal, it won’t be long before Brett ends up back in prison (along with his brothers) for a far more serious crime.

With the film taking place almost entirely within the setting of the home, it can all feel claustrophobic in there crammed with the array of occupants. Along with the three brothers, there’s their mum, Sandra (Lynette Curran), a trying and caring mother, as well as a doting one who seems a little too forgiving towards her sons’ shortcomings. She also has her boyfriend, George (Pete Smith), staying at the house, as well as Brett’s girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette) who has also been eagerly awaiting Brett’s release. And there’s Stevie’s pregnant girlfriend Nola (Anna Lise Phillips), the shy and frightened outsider who’s the only one to recognise how unhomely this family is.

In the lead role, David Wenham is really captivating as Brett, who isn’t a thoughtful man, but a man smart enough to manipulate others and dominate over his brothers, his girlfriend, and even Nola. For most of the time, Brett seems like a fairly prickly and confrontational person, but at other times he allows himself to be trustworthy and open to people before he sneakily begins influencing their behaviour. Wenham brings out not only the childish and immature demeanour of Brett, but also his sci-fi-inspired philosophical side when he eerily claims “we’re all gods in our own worlds”, proving his dangerously solipsistic worldview.

John Polson in The Boys.

John Polson in The Boys.

Wenham’s Brett Sprague is an immensely impactful character who has an alarmingly and chillingly real presence, though everyone else in the cast pretty much matches his heights in this superb ensemble effort. John Polson, in an AFI Award winning role as Glen, probably has the most affecting character arc throughout the film, as he does a terrific job at portraying the brother who still has a chance to leave the grips of Brett through his girlfriend Jackie (Jeanette Cronin), but he has difficulty trying to compromise both his family and her. Anthony Hayes is also great as Stevie who is stuck in the house with Nola, who he got pregnant, and his selfishness and carelessness makes him just as bad and amoral as Brett (though he turns out to be only a follower of bad deeds, not an instigator like Brett). Another AFI Award winner was Toni Collette for her role as Michelle, who also finds it hard to escape Brett’s stronghold whilst she’s still allured by his presence (especially for any romance or sex she can get from him). Lynette Curran also gives a strong performance as the mother whose moral centre is tested by the immoral actions of her sons, which puts her through a variety of reactions such as shock, hysteria, and resentment.

It’s little surprise to see how affective Wenham and Curran are as their characters as they performed them in the stage production that The Boys began as back in 1991, written by playwright Gordon Graham who based it on the assault and murder of Anita Cobby, showing how a group of men could potentially lead themselves up to such a crime. The play attracted controversy, but became a hit and wasn’t too long before a feature film adaptation was green-lit, with its production crew made up of mostly first-timers.

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Toni Collette in The Boys.

It was the directorial debut of Rowan Woods, who used the film medium in sometimes essential ways to make this story even more impactful on screen than on stage. There are the flash-forwards that break up the lengthy domestic scenes and provide a haunting glimpse at the near future of the brothers and the family. They may initially seem confusing to viewers as they are intercut with the present-time scenes, though as Woods explains on the DVD commentary they differ in a technical way – the flash-forwards are shot on tri-pods to show an easiness in the cinematography, and at other times utilise slow-motion, whereas the present-time scenes are all shot handheld. Woods explains how the cinematography subtly informs the mood of the boy characters, such as using longer lenses that would provide shakier and more erratic camerawork in the later scenes to emphasise the drunkenness and disorder of Brett and his brothers, along with effects like slow-motion, quick fade to blacks, and dissolves to further emphasise the inebriation of the boys.

Woods claims the two genres of filmmaking he emulated the most were horror and documentary, and it shows through how in a realist and doco-drama filmmaking style he has captured the horror that goes on in ordinary suburban houses filled with fraught people and families. It’s a very up-front look at this kind of harrowing living and it feels like an inescapable nightmare just to watch it. The Boys isn’t either horror or documentary, but it feels very much like both.

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