For a film based on a controversial stageplay, which in turn was based on an horrific and well-known true story, The Boys is a remarkably non-sensationalist film. Where director Rowan Woods could have taken an obvious, unsubtle and therefore completely inappropriate line, he has instead opted for a more tacit, and ultimately a more effective, approach. His handling of the very difficult, confronting and delicate material is to be admired and respected. Brett Sprague (David Wenham) is released from prison after serving a twelve-month sentence, and returns to his family to find things not quite as he left them. Brother Glen (John Poison) has moved out with his girlfriend Jackie (Jeanette Cronin); younger brother Stevie (Anthony Hayes) has his pregnant girlfriend Nola (Anna Lise) living with them; and Brett’s own girlfriend Michelle (Toni Collette) is there, too, waiting for him to get out. Sandra (Lynette Curran), Brett’s mother, is obviously pleased to have Brett back at home, and has planned something of a family celebration in honour of the occasion.
But not far behind the festive mood comes the inevitable familial tensions and arguments: Jackie would rather not spend too much time with Glen’s family; she sees herself as better than them, and spends much of her time trying to “improve” Glen. Stevie is less than happy with Nola – she was, after all, just a root he got up the duff. He’d rather she wasn’t around, but seeing her family has disowned her, she had nowhere else to go. And Michelle, eager to renew her relationship with Brett, has to deal with his suspicions of infidelity while he was inside, and his own altered behaviour. Given the levels of tension brewing around the house, ably assisted by plenty of sitting around sinking piss, it’s a foregone conclusion that something dreadful is going to happen. These fears are borne out in a series of flashes forward as we see the consequences of some unseen but obviously horrific act committed by the three brothers. As a filmic device, these flashes forward are initially disorienting. Captioned “Eighteen hours later”, “Three months later”, and so on, it takes some time to recognize the pattern of these sequences. Once an understanding is established, however, they imbue the film with an unnerving but very effective sense of menace and the threat of violence. And this is where The Boys is quite a powerful film.
The act – it is assumed that it is a violent one – is never seen, only hinted at, and is more effective as a result. We spend much of the film dreading the fulfillment of the threat, and this is much more harrowing than any explicitly violent scenes could ever be, by allowing our imaginations to fill in the gaps. It also provides the audience a psychological escape hatch as well, just in case it does become too much to bear. Much of the film’s tension, perhaps obviously, comes from the characters’ relationships with each other, and the emotional battering they put themselves through, and the cast is well up to the challenge. As a whole, they are incredibly strong; from Wenham, who puts in an impressively potent and disquieting performance as Brett, to Anna Lise playing the timid and broken Nola. Collette shows us that she is a versatile and very competent actor well able to deal with this heavier role; and Curran, as the desperate and downtrodden mother doing her best to keep faith in her boys, gives Sandra a lot of depth, and makes her variously pathetic, admirable and well out of her depth. The Boys won’t be to everyone’s taste. Sometimes the camera work is too deliberate and studied, and the film’s brooding atmosphere is at times overdone, but it is still a powerful, affecting film that ably demonstrates how much more chilling suggestion and implication is than the blatant representation of physical violence.