In a number of ways, Craig Macneill's The Boy represents the best and worst of “arthouse horror.” In the plus column, it substitutes genuinely unsettling atmosphere for cheap jump scares, places a greater emphasis than usual on character development and gains considerable power out of saving its most unnerving moments for the end. In the minus column, it takes an eternity to get going, often feels self-indulgently padded and has a tendency to give the actors too little tonal room to work with in their performances.
The film is set in 1989, and the story largely unfolds in and around the lonely, struggling Mt. Vista Motel. Once upon a time, the motel was a thriving business, but times (and more specifically, popular travel routes) have changed. Now, motel owner John Henley (David Morse, The Green Mile) considers himself lucky if he has two rooms booked at the same time. Years ago, John's wife ran off with one of the customers, leaving poor John as the sole caretaker of their son Ted (Jared Breeze, Cooties). John's doing the best he can, but Ted is a lonely, frustrated kid, and John doesn't really know what to do about it.
Here's something else John doesn't know: Ted is developing an unhealthy fascination with death. The boy has been tasked with cleaning up any roadkill he finds near the motel, and his obsession with the assorted carcasses he scrapes off the road lead him to want to do a little hunting of his own. Things take an even more unsettling turn after Ted meets William Colby (Rainn Wilson, The Office), a gruff new customer who carries the remains of his late wife around with him.
The film fits comfortably into the subgenre of “evil kid” movies, tonally landing somewhere between the muted discomfort of Joshua and the raw-nerve horror of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Like both of those movies, The Boy has a tendency to subtly hint at the reasons for Ted's ever-increasing wickedness rather than offering simple explanations. Would Ted have turned out this way if his mom were still around? If he had friends his own age? If his dad were a more proactive parent? It's hard to say for sure, but some combination of nature and nurture has caused him to stumble into a dark, dark place.
Unfortunately, the film's first hour can feel like a chore, as it gives us a series of predictable escalating beats and has them play out so... slowly... that... our... interest... starts... to... wane. The characters have been carefully considered, and all three of the central actors deliver nuanced performances (particularly Morse as the impotent John). However, the film's tone is muted, and the performances follow suit, leaving us with a movie that's easy to admire but that doesn't really grab you. Meanwhile, that irritating score skitters and thunks and jangles in a similarly muted way, making vaguely ominous noises but never really adding much tension.
I can't help but wonder if shaving twenty minutes off the running time might have helped the film's pacing a bit without interfering with its low-key approach. I'm certainly not opposed to slow-paced horror (or slow-paced anything, for that matter), but so many stretches of the movie feel so empty. For a good while, The Boy is Artful in a fairly meaningless way (another way in which it kinda resembles Joshua), keeping the genre it belongs to at arm's length while offering a lot of handsomely-framed imagery that ultimately doesn't accomplish too much.
To be fair, most all of my issues with the movie faded during the final act, which serves up some gut-churning tension and a barnburner of a closing set piece. The film's conclusion isn't technically all that graphic, but it certainly leaves a mark. It's a spectacular payoff, but man, it takes a long time to get there. I'll leave it to you to decide whether the wait is worth it, but Macneill clearly has the chops to make something impressive if he fine-tunes his approach.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 110 minutes
elease Year: 2015