Some Kind of Monster
2007 // UK // John Crowley // August 23, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Equipped with a disarming candor and despairing gaze, Boy A poses a daunting question: Is it just when society prolongs a criminal's punishment beyond his legal sentence? It gives animation to this thorny dilemma in the person of "Jack," a parolee who committed a horrific crime as a boy, a deed barely reconcilable with his shy, eager-to-please manner. With his sheepish, adolescent grin and wounded brown eyes, Jack (Andrew Garfield) initially seems prepackaged to tug at viewer sympathies and highlight the cruel manner in which ex-convicts are shunned and harassed by free society. However, director John Crowley takes a nervy approach with Boy A, gradually revealing contradictions and unsettling currents in Jack's personality and his past, even as he squeezes him between the dooms of public exposure and a violent death. An artistic and thematic inversion of Gus Van Sant's more daring, heady Paranoid Park, Crowley's feature traces a path trod by numerous socially conscious dramas about evil deeds and redemption, but it does so with a persuasive, moving tone of anguish and entropy.
"Jack" is the new alias of Eric, a notorious juvenile murderer who has been released from prison after fourteen years. His only friend is his genial parole officer, Terry (fierce, essential Scotsman Peter Mullan), who sees Jack as a surrogate son and an opportunity to create a success story. Terry shepherds Jack into the waiting jaws of the outside world, renting him a room and securing him a warehouse job, all the while emphasizing the need for secrecy. It's for his own safety. At trial, the prosecution described ten-year-old Jack as the embodiment of evil, and people are still howling for his blood. As he attempts to adjust to a society that reviles him, flashbacks reveal more of Jack's home and school life, his childhood friendship with his co-defendant, Philip, and what exactly the pair did that cast them as Public Enemy Numbers One and Two. Early in the film, we learn that Philip is dead by the time of Jack's release. Suicide, supposedly, but Jack's fears whisper otherwise.
Things seem to go well for a while. Jack's endearing Nice Guy vibe overcomes his shyness, and he makes friends among his co-workers. Michelle (Katie Lyons), one of his employer's secretaries, asks him out. In spite of some stumbles, the two begin a relationship that Crowley sketches with uncommon realism and warmth. Eventually, however, the artifice of Jack's new persona begins to fray at the edges. He has blind spots in his understanding of other people, as well as a tendency for outbursts of stammering emotion and disturbing violence. Then an unthinking act of heroism garners Jack a dangerous degree of publicity, and his situation goes from anxious to precarious. Much as his crime races to catch up with him, the flashbacks trespass on his reveries and nightmares with growing frequency and clarity: confrontations with school bullies, secret confessions with Philip, and a bloody eel on a gravel riverbank.
Boy A mines the concept of juvenile accountability with sharper focus and a more personalized sense of panicky free-fall than last year's Atonement. The flashbacks reveal secrets that, while not exactly mitigating, throw Jack's heinous crime into a new light. He and Philip were undoubtedly maladjusted, bloodthirsty little bastards, but were they inhuman monsters? And is Jack still a monster? Should one terrible childhood deed mark him forever, like some modern Cain? Crowley approaches Boy A as a straightforward tale of doom: Jack thinks he can outrun the past, but, alas, he cannot. The film is nicely assembled from this perspective, with a gratifying shot of rattling desperation. Garfield deserves a share of the praise for this tone, for while his early gawkiness seems too deliberate, he soon hits his stride. He lends heft and heartbreak to the portrayal, sharply conveying a man whose life is coming apart at the seams. Just as memorable and pivotal is Lyons, who delivers an unexpectedly engaging and complete character that shatters the confines of the usual conflicted girlfriend role.
Crowley relies on tight close-ups and a drifting, jiggling camera to convey a sense of urgency and disintegration. Such methods serve their purpose well in Boy A, although their prevalence lends an overcooked whiff to the proceedings. Likewise, the non-intuitive editing sometimes overstates the jumbled, jigsaw quality to Jack's post-release tribulations. Thankfully, Crowley weaves enough thematic threads into this gray, grave tale that it soars beyond its simple trajectory and occasionally self-conscious artiness. Boy A examines not only the the nature of accountability, but also the cruelties of sensational journalism, media celebrity, and the surveillance state. It finds time to point a finger at vigilantism, child neglect, classist humiliation, and the shamed silence so often erected around sexual abuse. It's a testament to Crowley's nimble hand that these disparate criticisms never feel affected or shoehorned, even as he maintains the film's focus on its primary theme: Is our civilization one that is even capable of extending genuine second chances? And if, so to who? The timelessness--and vexing persistence--of these questions makes Boy A a worthy endeavor, a post-Crime and Punishment for an era of anxious child psychology, correctional systems at critical mass, and spooky nature-or-nurture ruminations.