[Note: This post contains minor spoilers.]
The most intriguing aspect of The Boy is how slippery it is regarding exactly what sort of story it's telling. The film’s marketing suggests a chiller in the “Evil Doll” subgenre populated by the likes of Magic, Dolls, and Childs Play, but this is something of a fake-out. Indeed, the film itself contains a handful of similar feints, swerving this way and that through a flurry of horror cinema modalities, never quite settling into its final form until the last 15 minutes or so of its running time. In another feature, this fickle character might be regarded as a weakness, an indication of indecisiveness or sloppiness in the underlying screenplay. However, what’s impressive about The Boy is how smoothly these shifts occur within the context of the story. Stacey Menear’s script—which closely follows the heroine’s viewpoint and thus her evolving understanding of What the Hell Is Going On—is arguably the most distinctive component of a feature that is otherwise a middling collection of musty design elements and stock spook story beats.
American nanny Greta (Lauren Cohan) has come to the United Kingdom in the hopes of hiring on with Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire (Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), an elderly couple who dwell in a gloomy Scottish Baronial mansion. The position is unusual, to say the least: Greta’s charge-to-be is the Heelshires’ young "son" Brahms, who turns out to be a life-sized doll. Most applicants would likely back away slowly upon learning that they will be caring for a child made of porcelain, but Greta—notwithstanding some initial bafflement—eventually agrees to look after Brahms while the Heelshires are away on an extended holiday. The position does include room and board, after all, not to mention the run of the Heelshires’ enormous home. What’s more, the weekly grocery order arrives courtesy of handsome deliveryman Malcolm (Rupert Evans), whose English boyishness charms Greta straightaway. Most significantly, however, the position puts an ocean between Greta and her abusive ex, Cole, a vicious creep with a penchant for stalking.
For Greta, these merits overcome her reservations about her strange duties, but only marginally. Without a hint of jest, Mrs. Heelshire provides a detailed schedule for Brahms’ daily routine, as well as an extensive list of do’s and don’ts. (“2. Don’t cover his face.”) Mr. Heelshire, for his part, seems to understand how bizarre the situation must seem to an outsider, ruefully remarking to Greta in private that the doll might have been a harmless fantasy once, but has since swollen to consume the couple’s lives. Malcolm later fills in the family’s history for Greta, explaining that there was once a flesh-and-blood Brahms, but that the boy perished in a fire at a young age. The doll subsequently became a surrogate child for Mrs. Heelshire, who goes so far as to dress it in her deceased son’s clothes and prepare meals for it that go back into the icebox, uneaten. Her expectation is that Greta will evince a similar mindfulness and devotion when looking after Brahms.
The discomforting character of the The Boy’s early scenes plays upon the awkwardness that hovers near any expression of private grief. Politeness urges one not to question the methods that others have adopted to cope with a loss, no matter how strange those stratagems might seem. The Heelshires’ transference of their parental affections onto a doll represents the reductio ad absurdum of this principle, in that it constitutes a mourning behavior so unmoored from reality, only the promise of a paycheck allows Greta to smile through the inanity it all. One is reminded of how Rebecca and Tyler hand-wave away their grandparents’ distressing behavior in The Visit as mere senior eccentricity, or the way that John du Pont’s billions secure the silence of his friends and lackeys in Foxcatcher, even as his actions become dangerously erratic. Being both old and wealthy, one can assume that the Heelshires are accustomed to others taking their unusual child in stride.
Greta empathizes with the Heelshires’ grief—however peculiar its manifestation—but once the couple has departed, it’s clear that she doesn’t intend to play along with their delusion. She pays no attention to the doll, and instead wiles away the days drinking wine and flipping through magazines. Before long, however, curious occurrences begin to accrue. Objects vanish and then turn up elsewhere, while strange sounds reverberate through the house, as though someone were creeping through its endless halls and rooms. The film thusly presents a fairly classical horror scenario: an old dark house inhabited by the unquiet dead, which slowly ratchet up their efforts to terrorize an interloper. The Boy mostly adheres to a straightforward, PG-13 haunted house model of horror cinema during this phase. Director William Brent Bell focuses on slowly establishing the sensation that the Heelshire mansion harbors an unwholesome presence, one with an obsessive but ambiguous attachment to Greta. It’s broadly effective, but also undistinguished and unmemorable. It amounts to little more than a succession of familiar jump scares and appearing/disappearing tricks, given a bit of visual oomph by the house’s Gothic Revival spaces.
Although these phenomena unnerve Greta, she is initially inclined to dismiss them as the routine puzzlements of an old country estate fighting a losing battle against vermin and the elements. Once the mysteries begin to escalate, however, she is obliged to consider the preposterous possibility that Brahms is somehow responsible for them. Greta never witnesses the doll walking around on its own accord, but Brahms keeps moving when her back is turned, as though the pair were playing a demented game of “Red Light, Green Light.” (Here there are shades of Stephen King’s novel The Shining, with its stalking topiary animals.) The viewer is permitted to see a bit more than Greta—for example, when an unseen hand seems to filch her dress and necklace while she showers—but the majority of Brahms’ alleged mischief is performed just out of sight.
One night, Greta’s foolhardy exploration of the attic culminates in panic and a nasty fall when someone slams the door shut behind her, locking her in until Malcolm arrives the following morning. This ordeal is something of a breaking point for the nanny, who eventually comes to believe that Brahms’ restless soul is attached to the doll, and that it is trying to reach out to her for cryptic reasons. In the interest of mollifying the child’s spirit, Greta soon begins to adhere to Mrs. Heelshire’s previously disregarded lists, treating the doll with a newfound, downright creepy maternal fondness. Whereas she once longed to escape the confines of the mansion and Brahms’ lifeless, unsettling gaze, Greta comes to embrace her role as the doll’s de facto parent, cheerfully singing it songs, telling it stories, and kissing it goodnight. This understandably concerns Malcolm, particularly given that Brahms is seemingly hostile to anyone who could divert the nanny’s attention or affections. With some creative thinking, Greta convinces Malcolm that something supernatural is at play by staging practical experiments designed to demonstrate the doll’s comings and goings. The larger question of what Brahms’ spirit ultimately wants, however, is not so easily discerned.
Greta’s newfound belief in Brahms’ lingering presence triggers a shift in the nature of the story. Instead of a tale in which the heroine is harried by a malign spirit, The Boy becomes kind of low-key supernatural tragedy in which the heroine’s attachment to said entity deepens into something troubling. The disquiet that attended the film’s opening sequences emerges once again, save that it is Greta who is now immersed in a morbid fantasy, rather than the Heelshires. The narrative’s momentum dissipates, but the film paradoxically acquires an electric aura that hints at further upheaval. Greta seems resolved to remain at the house indefinitely, caring for Brahms for as long as she is able. (The Heelshires, it is eventually revealed, are never returning.) Purely based on running time, however, it’s clear that the film has not reached its dramatic conclusion, and several nagging questions remain. Greta seems to have negligently forgotten the rumors about the living Brahms that once vexed her. As Malcolm earlier observes, the “polite talk” in the local village was that Brahms was a sweet little boy, but the “pub talk” was that he was a strange, unnerving child, a child whose only playmate happens to have died under suspicious circumstances. Then there is the matter of Greta’s dirtbag ex, Cole: Like a walking Chekov’s gun, he is the destabilizing factor that is virtually guaranteed to enter the story eventually, if only because he was so prominently acknowledged early in the film.
The final sequences in The Boy feature a narrative upheaval of the most spectacular sort. If there is a singular element in the film that leaves a searing mark, it is the moment where the film’s central twist is revealed. It’s not that the reversal is itself particularly cunning or original: The film thereafter plunges into a well-worn set of horror conventions, executing them in a manner that ranges from gratifyingly thrilling to drearily silly. An attentive viewer may even see the story’s U-turn coming, as one particular line of dialog offhandedly reveals the film’s sleight of hand. What makes The Boy’s twist so striking is the remarkable intensity of the actual moment when it occurs. For about 20 to 30 seconds, Bell and his performers deliver a moment of uncommon flesh-crawling potency, where reality itself seems to fracture and the mind is plunged into the icy waters of utter, nauseating uncertainty. Even the best horror filmmaker would be hard-pressed to maintain such a dizzying high, and Bell just lets the remainder of the film play out according to a hunt-and-chase playbook that was dog-eared decades ago.
This highlight aside, The Boy is ultimately a modestly moody but forgettable film. Some of the feature’s blandness falls on Bell’s shoulders, but a share of the blame is attributable to Cohan. Most of her performance is, at best, dully functional. The actress is a welcome presence as the hard-bitten but vulnerable Maggie when surrounded by the The Walking Dead’s sprawling ensemble cast. However, she just doesn’t have the wattage to sustain a feature film where she is often the only performer on screen for long periods of time. Moreover, a horror heroine—even one who is a hardened abuse survivor—demands a bit of ingenuousness, and Cohan is all lithe self-possession. The one exceptional gesture in her performance occurs when the Heelshires first introduce her to Brahms. Cohan wordlessly ushers her reaction through amusement, uncertainty, alarm, apprehension, and finally carefully arranged pleasantness. It’s a crucial, potentially ludicrous moment in the story, and Cohan nails it with admirable precision.