Editor’s Notes: The Boy is currently out in wide release.
Here’s the thing about January horror films: There never is just one. 2016 was kicked off with The Forest, which was not particularly awful, but not particularly worthwhile. Fast-forward to a couple of weeks later, and now we have The Boy, which appears to be a bit of an anomaly. It’s being sold as a serious, creepy scare-fest by its marketing, but its plot is so wildly absurd and out there that one begins to doubt the marketing’s claims. Really, what film in the last few years can you think of that’s offered such sights as its main character babying an inanimate object (other than American Sniper) with sinister undertones? Not many. So we’re left to speculate what it’s actually about, whether marketing is hiding something or not, and if it actually is scary to any extent.
Really, what film in the last few years can you think of that’s offered such sights as its main character babying an inanimate object (other than American Sniper) with sinister undertones?
Well, the marketing was pretty accurate in one respect. The Boy is indeed a film about a creepy doll, and how that doll terrifies an American nanny (Lauren Cohan) hired to take care of him. The setup is fairly simple, with Lauren Cohan’s Greta arriving at the house of her employers, which fulfills every facet of the “spooky mansion” trope. Upon her entry, minimally strange occurrences begin to take place, sparsely, but enough to be noticeable. Her shoes disappear, strange noises sound off at random, et cetera. However, there is one exceedingly strange thing about the family that resides there. The child Greta came to care for, named Brahms, is actually a quite lifeless ceramic doll, and Greta’s employers seem to treat it like it’s really their son. At this discovery, Greta laughs, but needs the money, and soon goes along with their supposed charade. After some condescending instruction, her employers depart on what appears to be business, and she’s left alone with Brahms. Rather suddenly, those formerly scattered occurrences start to become more frequent, and soon Greta’s reluctantly convinced that Brahms is alive.
The first half, however, is not nearly as solid. It’s just jump scares and exposition for the most part, though well shot and well acted, and offers a far less heady experience.
Where The Boy goes from there is not necessarily all that scary, but it’s somehow… intellectually stimulating? Not extravagantly so, but still surprisingly so. It offers a narrative that provides impromptu psychological dissection fairly effectively in lieu of simple jump scares. There’s really something intriguing there, a statement about the magnetism of family dynamics and how they can be used as coping mechanisms for better or worse. This could be seen as unintentional, sure, but only if The Boy was a film that didn’t exert effort, and it absolutely is. Consider the final shot, which isn’t one of those “last jump scares” that have besieged the horror genre, but instead feels (pardon the ellipses)… graceful? If it was concerned purely with being scary, wouldn’t it feature any significant jump scares in its second half? And honestly, that second half is unsettling enough as is with the drastic direction it goes during the climax. It’s a direction that is not only a bit freaky, but also services the thematic content in a way that’s kind of neat. Neat. That’s a word I didn’t think I’d use in this review.
The first half, however, is not nearly as solid. It’s just jump scares and exposition for the most part, though well shot and well acted, and offers a far less heady experience. However, it’s fun to experience both disappointed expectations and surpassed expectations in the span of a single film. Bottom line, if you can maintain an open mind, you’ll probably have an oddly fun time with The Boy.
Where The Boy goes from there is not necessarily all that scary, but it's somehow... intellectually stimulating? Not extravagantly so, but still surprisingly so. It offers a narrative that forgoes simple jump scares about halfway through in lieu of psychological dissection.