Rifling through his father’s shed, nine-year-old Ted (Jared Breeze) sneaks out a ledger book rather than the Playboy on top of it. He acts out the role of hotel manager to nonexistent customers at his family’s desolate Mtn. Vista hotel. It’s clear he tends toward a system of checks and balances, at least until someone or something challenges that idea — then all bets are off. If the rodent roadkill that he collects to sell to his father (David Morse) dries up, he’ll steal a bag of chicken feed and sprinkle it across the street to sway the game in his favor. Director Craig Macneill keeps these actions from Ted deliberate and considered in his debut feature “The Boy” — hinting at the possible disturbing escalations to come. However, the clean lines and murky atmosphere of dread also leave too little of a surprise by the tale’s end.
The concept of a tiny Travis Bickle in waiting is absolutely an intriguing one, and it’s what drove Macneill to build his 2011 short “Henley” into the pitch-black feature we see here — reportedly the first installment in a trilogy charting Ted’s gradual transformation into a serial killer. It makes sense then that “The Boy” feels like an origin story of sorts, full of clues, slow reveals, and a collision of mysterious characters. Once Ted lays his feed trap for bigger roadkill game, he snags a huge deer, as well as the barely conscious man (Rainn Wilson) who hits it with his now-totaled car. Ted and his father nurse him back to health, but soon it’s clear that the man, Mr. Colby, is harboring a secret from wherever he was previously.
Breeze finds Macneill’s desired tone and runs with it — the role requires that we’re convinced Ted can switch between empathetic and completely deranged, and he is clearly up to the task. The way in which he calmly follows through on creepy or invasive actions, like using the master keys to break into guests’ rooms and cover their mouths, lends a legitimate, tangible tension to Ted’s journey. You want him to earn enough money to leave his penniless drunk of a father for his mother’s place in Florida, but only because it’s apparent that if he stays an outburst is going to level everything in sight.
The trouble is, this dynamic is established within the film’s first thirty minutes, and then Macneill reiterates it over the next ninety. Layering warped soundscapes by Hauschka (Volker Bertelmann) over sustained, handsomely composed exterior shots of the hotel grounds and surrounding roads, the director tries to generate a pace that his dramatic efforts fail to match. “Slow burn” is the common description for such a tone, but that term usually turns people away from an otherwise engaging watch that arranges itself in a certain way. However, Macneill plays into the type of cinema that those detractors are imagining: basic character motivations obscured by drawn-out technique, and answering questions forty minutes after they’ve already solved them.
That isn’t to say snatches of the film aren’t extremely effective, or strong embers of the promise that launched Macneill’s name as one to watch. Wilson, on similar pitch-black ground as his character in “Super,” shares some oddly compelling conversations with Ted as he realizes the boys’ sociopathic behavior. And Morse brings a saddened gravity to his role as Ted’s father, unable to even celebrate a birthday without upsetting the boy and turning back to his whiskey den.
As the film reveals its ‘80s period detail towards the end through set decoration and soundtrack cuts (Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” makes an eerie appearance), so too does Macneill tip his hand toward horror intentions — a move that gives DP Noah Greenberg free reign to crank up his influences and use the widescreen frame to his advantage. It’s a telegraphed yet suspenseful turn, but by that point, because so many threads have developed to a tepid close, this one doesn’t inspire hope either. The seeds of a sequel sprout in the film’s lasting final shot, but perhaps with a look further into Ted’s future, a narrative to match the mood will emerge as well. [C-]