“Nobody ever comes back here,” says nine-year-old Ted Henley (Jared Breeze) to his father John (David Morse) in “The Boy,” in reference to the isolated desert motel that where Craig William Macneill’s eerie 1989-set thriller takes place. It’s an apt summation of the dark, purgatorial quality that permeates each scene of Macneill’s debut feature. Adapted from one chapter in Clay McLeod Chapman’s 2003 book “Miss Corpus” (and produced by Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision label), the movie explores the childhood of a would-be Norman Bates-like psychopath driven to murderous extremes in adolescence. This is hardly a spoiler considering the morbid inevitability in each scene, but Macneill’s elegant treatment of the material keeps its central mystery in play, with the palpable suspense derived from how and when young Ted will finally snap.
Raised solo by his father after his mother’s departure before the movie begins, Ted’s limited worldview is enhanced by the legacy surrounding him. Spending his days in the barren landscape surrounding the same motel started by grandfather, Ted has little attachment to the rest of the world aside from the random faces that come and go. These fleeting visitations hardly give him much of a social life, but things start to change with the arrival of the introverted William (Rainn Wilson, his usual comedic tendencies buried in sunken features and an unkempt beard). William’s abrupt arrival after a late night car accident instigates a curious relationship between the mysterious figure and the adolescent boy, whose father regularly tells him not to bother the customers.
Nevertheless, William takes a paternal interest in Ted, not fully comprehending the child’s penchant mischievous behavior. While that relationship goes south, Ted also forges a peculiar bond with a child his own age whose family passes through. Throughout each of these circumstances, “The Boy” repeatedly hints at Ted’s evil potential by emphasizing his naiveté — incapable of understanding how to form real bonds with new acquaintances, he relates to people around him as if they’re shiny new toys. But Ted relates to these people the way that some children regard ants through a magnifying glass, and there’s hardly enough scrutiny of his behavior to deter him from that path.
While some of the implications surrounding Ted’s burgeoning lunacy are a bit too obvious, “The Boy” maintains a gripping sense of atmospheric dread that implies Ted’s psychological uneasiness with his consistently grave expression. In the pantheon of creepy child actors, Breeze stands out for a focused intensity that never seems less than genuine and utterly hypnotic, much like the environment surrounding the character.
The movie’s consistently grave tone sometimes threatens to suffocate the dramatic momentum, but Macneill overcomes some of the more lethargic stretches by constructing an immersive audiovisual experience in which Ted’s mindset dominates nearly each scene. Aided by German composer Hauschka’s minimalist score and cinematographer Noah Greenberg’s widescreen cinematography, “The Boy” delivers a lyrical encapsulation of an alienated setting that may as well be post-apocalyptic.
But Ted’s world barely exists in the first place, and so the emergence of his maniacal disposition gradually makes sense — with his melancholic, hard-drinking father as his only moral compass, it’s only a matter of time before he takes matters into his own hands. Macneill’s screenplay (co-written by Clay McCleod Chapman) subtly fleshes out the tattered details responsible for Ted’s mania with grimly poetic understatement worthy of Cormac McCarthy. “We’re running a dead motel,” John tells Ted at one point. “These roads just don’t know it yet.”
But that certainly changes once Ted takes control during the horrific climax, a fiery climax in which the boy exacts revenge on some unruly clients with devilish confidence. The scariest aspect of “The Boy” is the extent to which Macneill makes it possible to sympathize with the troubled protagonist — even as its haunting final shot hints at the horrors yet to come.
“The Boy” opens in select theaters and VOD platforms today.