You Have to See… is an ongoing feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer writes a piece advocating a film that they love. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film, then giving your own thoughts in the comments section.
This week, Ali Sipahi looks at a searing depiction of Australian masculinity, The Boys, in light of its new restoration premiering at Sydney Film Festival 2016.
In 1986, twenty-six year old registered nurse Anita Cobby was abducted while walking home in the suburb of Blacktown in western Sydney. Five men forced her into their car, which they used to transport her to the secluded paddock where they brutally beat, raped and murdered her. Neville Wran, the NSW Premier at the time, described it as the “vilest crime of the century”. The five men involved – three of which were brothers – were convicted of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The brutality of the trial sparked a public outrage in Australia and fuelled a campaign for the reinstatement of the death penalty.
Based on Graham Gordon’s play of the same name, The Boys tries to imagine what attitudes or factors could induce men to commit such a horrific crime; inspired in part by the Cobby case, the play and film examine three brothers in the lead-up to such an act. The play debuted at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney in 1991, with David Wenham and Lynette Curan starring in the same roles they would later revive for Rowan Woods’ 1998 screen adaptation.
The Boys opens with David Wenham’s gruff, tense-jawed Brett Sprague’s release from prison, for what we later discover was a stint for grievous bodily harm. He is picked up by his youngest brother Steve (Anthony Hayes) and cracks a stubbie on the way to the family home. Once he gets there, Brett’s strategy is clear from the get go: he’s keen to re-establish his position of power within the family. Utilising guilt (“How come no one came to visit me?”) and menace, Brett swiftly reminds those present that he’s owed his position of boss within the family. Welcoming him is his girlfriend Michelle (a brilliant Toni Collette), his mother Sandra (Lynette Curan) and Nola (Anna Lise Phillips), a young girl that Steve has impregnated. For almost the whole film, all of the action takes place within the house; this has two far-reaching effects that speak to the quality and complexity of the film as a whole.
Firstly, it harkens to the story’s dramatic roots, and lends a sense of the theatrical that runs parallel to the dirty realism of the details within The Boys. In the first ten minutes alone, we see beer stubbies, Winny Blues and a beat-up yellow Toyota Corona. This fodder of the Aussie everyman has a confronting normalising effect that stresses the fact that these men aren’t just mythical, violent beasts: they are real suburban monsters. Much like Snowtown, which also focused on a real crime story, The Boys demonstrates the startling human factor that can be discovered when you start fleshing out such offenders.
Secondly, the single location method gives the impression of a permanency in the family and their circumstances. The Boys intersperses flash-forward footage of the brothers being arrested with the present-day footage of them drinking and warring at home. This disruption of the timelines gives off the impression that it’s not the same day, even though the audience can deduce that it is by the clothes they wear and the number of beers that progressively pile up around the house. It could reasonably be suggested, however, that these are the same clothes and cans from yesterday or last week. It’s clear that none of the brothers go to work: what else is there to do? This ingeniously crafted technique suggests a dim reality: that nothing changes in this corner of the world, and that the boys are doomed, as a consequence of their history, to repeat the same violent and antisocial acts. It acknowledges the influence of socio-economic status and inherited norms in criminal behaviour without excusing it by undermining the agency of the brothers.
In exploring the largely complicated question of why men like this commit such crimes, The Boys concerns itself largely with Brett’s love of control, and his desire to exercise it upon those around him. Brett may be the most reprehensible example of what constitutes the lowest rung of the Australian everyman – racist, misogynistic, quick to violence – but he is also uncannily astute in his ability to read others and manipulate them. As soon as he gets back home, he sets to work in dismantling those around him by pressing on their weak points. Recognising Steve’s frustration with Nola’s presence and his dissonant fear of her disloyalty, Brett decides to confront Nola at her weakest moment. As the young girl discloses that she is considering ‘getting away’ because she is scared, Brett reminds her of the inescapable ties she carries to both Steve and the family: “No one’s getting’ away. You’re one of us now. You’re carrying mum’s first grandchild”. This, being probably the last thing the poor girl wants to hear, has her terrified. Brett ‘comforts’ the sobbing Nola by hugging her while her hands are locked behind her back; this claustrophobic shot originates from behind Nola and has the effect of imparting her terror onto the audience, who gain a physical appreciation of Brett’s terrifying emotional manipulation. This subtle act results in the terrified and now mobilised Nola fleeing, curtailing the issue of Steve having something to be responsible for something in the home and priming a sense of violent anger towards women.
Michelle, having lived in mortal fear of Brett’s retaliation should she stray in his absence, has remained faithful and is yearning for physical contact and affection now that he’s back. Brett teases her progressively throughout the day; a tactic that culminates in a rendezvous in the shed. This scene marks the point at which Brett moves from calculated to violent sociopath: the only point in the film that he loses control. Michelle and Brett are making out against the shed wall when it becomes apparent that Brett is unable to gain an erection. While Brett furiously messes around with his junk through his pockets, Michelle laughs at him and questions his masculinity. Brett is losing control – of his penis, of Michelle and his power over her. Brett lashes out physically, hitting Michelle and pushing her face against the wall. She opts to wrench herself free from his grip and leaves her scrunchie and a big chunk of blonde hair in his fist which he swiftly pockets, a misogynist’s trophy.
It seems odd to imagine that an Australian film from the nineties that’s directed by a bloke and based on a play written by a man could have an inherently feminist message, but The Boys manages to. Unsatisfied with the idea that violence against women occurs in a vacuum devoid of the perpetrators beliefs about women, The Boys showcases the misogyny of Brett and his brothers in such a way that puts these attitudes at the centre of their violent behaviour.
There are four woman in the film – mother Sandra, Brett’s girlfriend Michelle, Glenn’s (the older brother) wife Jackie and young Nola. Sandra in particular is very compelling: she immediately reminds us of Jacki Weaver’s Smurf in Animal Kingdom, but without the oft-questionable physical affection. Sandra’s motivation is singular: she loves her boys, and wants to care for them as best she can. They leech off of her financially and emotionally, and despite all that they have put her through, she remains duty-bound to them in her role as their mother. Brett recognises this and exploits it throughout the day by starting fights with the rest of the family, disrespecting her wishes (continuing to drink beer after she pleads with him to stop) and eventually assaulting her boyfriend. The brothers go through the motions of what they think constitutes familial loyalty (kissing mum on the cheek, complimenting her cooking, telling the cops to fuck off when they come to check on Brett) but in actuality they show no regard for the sacrifices that Sandra has had to make. This is evident in a telling scene where the three brothers are drinking in the lounge-room alone and Steve (without a doubt the biggest mummy’s boy in the family, being the youngest and the only one still at home) raises the fact that the boys all have different fathers. He goes on a rant about how his mother is a slut and, going for the classic Aussie combo-breaker of racism plus sexism, insults her for being in a relationship with a man of colour. This drunken diatribe is especially vile and confronting, but it’s not a stand-alone: The Boys endeavours to confront its audience with the brothers’ misogyny throughout the film by showcasing it heavily in their dialogue. Upon his return home, Brett asks Michelle if she’s “kept it warm for him”, questioning if she has been showing her “titties off to anyone else”.
This language, combined with the ever-present theme of violence in The Boys, showcases the flimsy nature of masculinity in the context of criminal behaviour. As we have already seen, Brett is obsessed with exerting his power over others, and is especially touchy about his masculine role. The quietest and most telling moment in the film is the final scene in which the boys are smoking in the parked car and observing their intended victim. Brett remarks that they’re finally together – “just the way God planned it”. Steve questions this statement in a depressing display of his own futility and the pull his brother has over him: “the way God planned it, or the way you did Brett?” Basking in the glow of his omnipotence, Brett smiles and decrees: “same difference – we’re all Gods in our own world”.
Although this final scene is not the most subtle, it showcases the secure ethos of The Boys, which refuses to excuse the violent behaviour of rapists and murderers by saying that they were simply uneducated repeat offenders with a history of violent crimes. The film actually barely touches on those, save for Brett’s initial release from prison and their excursion to the bottle shop that Brett had originally robbed. Instead, The Boys showcases the brothers’ beliefs about gender roles in a way that links these directly to their crimes – their anger with regards to masculine power and female insubordination acting as the precipitating factor that put them in the car that night, and likely would have led Anita Cobby’s murderers to taking her life in such a horrible way. Brett is so deluded in his interpretation of his masculine role that he has gone beyond ‘man of the house’ to God of his own domain, exerting his cruel punishment on those that he feel has wronged him. The Boys fleshes out Brett’s form of calculated reprimand, and confronts its audience with the cause-effect relationship of deluded notions of masculine power, and how far some men will go to reclaim what they feel owed to when it is taken from them. Fitting into the exciting theme of other superbly acted Australian films that showcase our monsters next-door, such as Animal Kingdom and Snowtown, The Boys is a surprisingly progressive and pivotal case-study in Aussie masculinity gone mad.
For those of you who caught the Sydney Film Festival screening of The Boys this week – do you think the film has to be seen? If you have seen the film long ago, has your opinion of it shifted over time? Drop your thoughts in the comment section below.