In The Boy (2016), director William Brent Bell presents Greta (Lauren Cohan) who becomes a governess at an isolated English mansion to escape her abusive boyfriend Cole (Ben Robson). She is to care for Brahms, a peculiar eight year old boy who, according to his mother, insists upon a strict schedule of music (played loud) and stories (read clearly). What Greta does not know until she arrives is that Brahms is a large doll.
(Brahms’ doll status is not news to us, of course; we saw him on the DVD cover.)
This is deeply weird, to put it mildly, but Greta needs to be out of Cole’s controlling reach, and her isolation is mitigated by the regular appearance of the decent, attractive, and single Malcolm (Rupert Evans, whom we remember fondly from The Man in the High Castle). Malcolm delivers groceries once a week and is going to become Greta’s anchor on reality–an anchor I immediately regretted the script writer (Stacey Menear) gave her.
I regretted this anchor because I wanted was a film that was full-bore insane. I wanted to see Greta trapped in this house alone, going completely Stockholm-syndromey with that damned doll (I choose my adjective carefully) and its two loony parents. Instead, I got something more rational, something ultimately explainable.
It’s not that the parents (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle) are deficient in any way when it comes to bats in their respective belfries. The woman of this rather elderly couple is completely convinced the doll is her child (who died twenty years prior in mysterious circumstances). But the husband is, arguably, the more disturbing of the two, since he seems (almost) to have maintained a toehold on reality: privately, he gives Greta an apologetic explanation of how he came to play along with his wife’s delusion. But then he hints at his own mental corruption when he drops this little turd into the conversational punch bowl: “we may have indulged Brahms.”
In the grand tradition of horror movie “logic”, Greta does not hike up her skirts at this point and run to the nearest bus stop. No, she decides to play along, do the job, cash the paychecks. The decision becomes easier when the couple, clearly relived to have found someone willing to keep the job (and whom, the wife tells us, Brahms approves of), announce they are taking a long delayed vacation. This means Greta can toss the doll into a chair and ignore it until the parents return.
Narrator Voice: “They never returned.”
Except for Malcolm’s weekly appearances, the rest of the movie is going to be Greta and Brahms, alone together in that vast, empty house, getting to know one another.
Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call a perfectly crafted set up for a horror movie. This is an almost Snakes on a Plane-level of clarity and truth in labeling. We have entered Exactly What It Says on the Tin territory. We are given a title of The Boy, the poster art shows us a creepy doll, we watch a young woman move into a lonely mansion, and we just know, know, know what will follow. We’re talking paint-by-numbers plotting here. The hook is perfectly crafted. It completely conforms to the imperatives of the genre.
If this review is, like our heroine, going to follow the stated rules, it should conclude by noting the film does everything it promises. It provides roughly two hours of entertainment according to the conventions of the genre, issuing jump scares at the correct moments, a nice, fat plot twist, and an exciting, not to say heart-pounding, conclusion.
It even goes a little farther, demonstrating some psychological depth. The doll’s mind games drive Greta to take it seriously and follow its rules. Then she goes farther, determining to understand the doll, and even befriend it. Never mind how implausible this is. Never mind how helpless she later becomes, unable, when it becomes needed, to break a glass window to escape from the house. No, give the movie credit: whether it’s Greta’s unbelievable courage, or for that matter the rather surprising fate of the parents (which I won’t completely reveal), this movie goes the extra quarter mile to be original.
There is a rule that says a review must never judge a movie for being the movie its makers wanted to make instead of the movie the reviewer wanted to see. This review is like Greta: it is rebellious and doesn’t like following rules. This review is going to complain this movie takes a turn at the end which is too safe and conventional.
(This review will speak a bit vaguely, to minimize spoilers.)
The ending is a safe choice because all the supernatural horror depicted turns out to have a natural explanation. The surprise–and it is a surprise, a nice, disorienting shock that takes minutes to absorb fully–comes at a price. The shock of surprise fully negates the shock of horror. Before our eyes, this horror film transforms itself into a thriller.
This feels like a letdown. The fact is, I wanted badly for a spiritual explanation. I wanted ghosts and hauntings, demons and possessions. (So to speak.) I wanted spiritual warfare. I wanted The Conjuring or Halloween.
Isn’t the spiritual realm richer? Doesn’t the possibility of angels, fallen or otherwise, suggest an entire cosmology, a landscape of vast and uncountable dimensions? You could spend a lifetime speculating about the spiritual realm and presumably not predict the half of it.
I had thought entertainment was becoming increasingly sophisticated in these latter days. I expected The Boy to be something more than an Exactly What It Says On the Tin entertainment–more than a competently made horror-thriller. I see I was wrong. Conventional entertainment will continue to be made as long as conventional audiences demand it. It seems the change this technological age has wrought is the ability to find what one is looking for, and to overlook the rest.
I failed to overlook The Boy. I should have left him to his proper audience. Instead, I saw him on that cover. I heard him call to me, and I listened. I guess Greta isn’t the only dumb one taken in by that doll.