Review: The Boy (2016)

The Boy is about a puppet, and I know what you’re thinking: we’ve had The ConjuringAnnabelleDead Silence, and even the new Goosebumps movie within the past few years to do exactly the same kind of thing with painted wooden faces. But The Boy isn’t what you’re thinking it is; and if you’re thinking that it’s probably not what you initially thought it was, then you’d be correct (if you can parse that thought). William Brent Bell presents a moody British-American chiller that emphasizes the use of the inanimate object but manages to capture a bit more, to go further with a twist that might not break down genre conventions but one that at least gives The Boy some room to overcome any initial preconceived biases about its cliche. It’s a film about a boy puppet, but also about the real boy that that puppet represents – Bell is literally caught up in personification, and for the most part, it generates a tense thriller.

Lauren Cohan (The Walking Dead) leads the film as one of the only protagonists; her character Greta moves to an English estate owned by the Heelshires to take care of their little boy Brahms, who, she later finds, is actually a puppet. While Greta is often one of the only players in the film besides the puppet boy Brahms, she’s aided by a weekly deliveryman named Malcolm (Rupert Evans) who eventually tells Greta about the real Brahms’ death in a fire two decades prior.

Bell highlights the dreariness of the house and the countryside right away, with exterior shots of the massive estate and rain and thunderstorms aplenty. He also centers on Greta immediately, the lone wolf in this lonely house once the Heelshires head out on holiday. The Boy‘s opening is suspenseful because Bell makes use of the setting’s long hallways and the house’s settling creaks. It’s a skillful way to build the architecture of the house, to show how alone Greta really is, and to prepare the viewer for the finale’s surprise. The quiet swells of Bear McCreary’s soundtrack helps to set the mood as well; The Boy is a very muted film except in certain situations, and the unexpected increases in volume at key times keeps the viewer on edge.

But the ambient tension only works for so long before the viewer realizes that The Boy has a few noticeable kinks. Cohan is good in her performance, nuanced enough thanks to her work on The Walking Dead, but the problem is that Bell has little for her to do. Stacey Menear’s script relies heavily on long waiting periods – scenes where Greta sets Brahms in a certain position, walks away, and comes back to find him slightly disturbed, or the all-to-prevalent dream sequence – and The Boy slowly creeps towards its main conceit. Even towards the halfway mark, the real point of the film has yet to manifest.

That doesn’t mean that The Boy has to be all scares all the time, and Bell does some solid work with the atmosphere, especially with the sound of running feet in areas around the house. But the subtlety begins to wear off, the viewer losing interest in this glacial study of a puppet that may or may not be moving on its own. The overt scares are too generic, and so they ultimately call attention to the excellent mood setting that provides little payoff. Worse, though, is Menear’s attempt to bring up Greta’s history of spousal abuse. The conversations are painfully expository, mostly done during phone conversations. It’s a forced attempt to give Greta a backstory that corresponds to the Heelshires’ loss and grieving after the death of Brahms, and it’s also lazy writing.

It’s the final twist, though, that brings things together. The Boy is admittedly surprising, albeit a surprise that has been used liberally throughout the years. The Boy does pull it off, unexpectedly ramping up the intensity in the final act in direct opposition to the nuance of the rest of the film. It’s really up to the viewer whether the twist is worth the wait, and The Boy‘s success hinges on this one event.

The film isn’t as wooden as its premise suggests but – because of its slow pacing and reliance on twist alone – it’s still somewhat middling. Even so, The Boy truthfully surprises more often than one would expect, and Cohan and Evans are good, even if The Boy‘s plot isn’t quite strong enough to support its slow spiral. Audiences should see the film for themselves and treat The Boy the same way Greta experiments with the puppet: hesitantly expectant that it will come to life.

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