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Tabula Rasa

The Boys

Directed by Rowan Woods (1998)

Reviewed by David Carroll, 2001

Video cover"Ah, this is the life, eh?"
"Yeah, some fucking life."

This is a movie about violence, and in particular the lead up to violence. The boys of the title are three grown brothers, and when the eldest, Brett, is released after a year in gaol, old tensions and new conflicts rise quickly to the surface.

The Boys was originally a play, written by Gordon Graham and first performed in 1991. Although this was some five years after the Anita Cobby case, a Sydney crime involving the rape and murder of a nurse by -- among others -- three brothers, memories were immediately reignited by the play. Whether or not it, and hence the movie, was actually based on the event is a matter for conjecture. Or rather, the film-makers deny it, and everybody else seems to assume it is true regardless. I have read one interview where it was claimed the characters were based on some of Graham's neighbours (not something I think I would disclose). But I suspect it doesn't really matter either way as the movie, written for the screen by Stephen Sewell, remains a powerful examination of modern life.

As well as the three boys, there are three girls. The middle brother Glenn has been trying to better himself, with the help of his fiancee Jackie (or is she his wife? The press kit claims so, but I didn't pick it up from the movie). The youngest Stevie has inadvertently landed himself with the pregnant and timid Nola, who he would much rather see the back of. Brett himself is greeted by the assertive and perceptive Michelle, played by Toni Collette not too long before her stint in The Sixth Sense. Completing the characters is the boys' mother, Sandra, and her boyfriend George (or, rather more casually, Abo), played by Pete Smith from the excellent The Quiet Earth. Each of the pairs is obviously a good match -- thematically if not personally. The women are trying to make things work, all in their own separate ways, but any such efforts are doomed to failure when the boys are together. It's a bit hard to guess what the relations were like before Brett turned up, but they seem to have been relatively stable at least. In his presence, things disintegrate rapidly.

So, what precisely is the problem? And how does it lead up to the horrific murder that is suggested by the various 'flashforwards' that intersperse the narrative?

The movie only shows you what happens, it doesn't try to make much sense of it in any overt fashion. However I think the biggest clue is in the title itself. Although aged from (at a guess) 19 to 25 or so, the three main characters are boys. They have not got the responsibilities of men, or deny what has been thrust upon them by circumstance. Nor have they learnt the simplest lesson of experience -- that their actions may have consequence. They quite simply do not care, bar a sullen exertion of self-protection that can be easily over-ridden. As the centre figure, Brett is the most interesting. He has a tempter's tongue, and seems to be possessed of at least rudimentary intelligence and charm if required. But everything is pushed down into a monotone whose inflections suggest quite an amazing range. As he mentions, being in gaol has stopped him going on like a smart-arse. Again, we are not shown what things were like before. Nobody except Michelle acts too surprised by this persona, so it's hard to know how much he has changed. Certainly, it was his tendency to violence that got him behind bars to start with.

Also particularly interesting is his leanings towards science fiction, both movies and novels (I can sort of see SF fans reacting in two ways to this -- either "no, no, we have a positive hobby, nothing like those other idiots" or, "cool, we can be dangerous too!"). Again this implies some thought on his behalf, but when he expresses a philosophy it is so flat and self-evidently contradicted by his life that it doesn't even qualify as wishful thinking. Again, he doesn't really seem to care. But not everything is so negative -- he displays compassion at one point, and not even for any apparent ulterior motive. It is a fascinating character, carried superbly by David Wenham who was one of the driving forces behind getting the story onto film, having played the character on stage.

Direction-wise, all this is conveyed in a sparse and powerful manner, all the more remarkable because it is Rowan Woods' first and thus far only feature film -- since then he appears to have working mainly on Farscape. We get blurred images of Sydney streets, and a focus on both the characters and the meaningless clutter of their house. The flashforwards are clearly conveyed and effective. The music, performed by The Necks, is excellent.

I still have a few reservations about the movie as a whole -- not so much as what happens within it, but what happens before it and after it (and I'm not talking about the ending, which some people see as a cop-out, something with which I disagree completely). Although it is obvious Brett's time in gaol is the catalyst for the melt-down, as I've already said, it is sometimes hard to tell what has changed and what has not. The movie may talk about the nature of this sort of violence, but it doesn't give any indication why every household in the country does not harbour such people (or do they?). Likewise, I'm not so sure about the final fate of the women, particularly Michelle. I thought a little more information would have been nice (the contents of the letter for a start). But these are all peripheral matters, and do not detract from the core. The Boys is a powerful and important look at the male animal in captivity, held there by his society, his family, and by his own hand.

  • The Press Kit
  • External link: IMDB listing. Note the truly, truly awful alternate title: Down Under Boys. I guess this is to avoid confusion with the Winona Ryder movie Boys from '96. However, it does seem to have only been used in Japan.

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