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The Boys (1998)

Synopsis

Brett Sprague (David Wenham) returns to his mother’s suburban Sydney house after a year in jail. His younger brother Glenn (John Polson) has moved out with his girlfriend Jackie (Jeanette Cronin); youngest brother Stevie (Anthony Hayes) has been staying in Brett’s room with his new girlfriend Nola (Anna Lise) after her father kicked her out for getting pregnant. Arguments and accusations begin as soon as Brett arrives. He accuses both brothers of stealing a stash of drugs he left in his room. The police visit after he fights with Michelle (Toni Collette), his long-time girlfriend; he drives a wedge between Jackie and Glenn and intimidates the terrified Nola. His mother Sandra (Lynette Curran) tries to keep the peace, but the three sons turn on her new boyfriend Abo (Pete Smith). After 18 hours of drinking and fighting, the boys go out and cruise the streets, looking for trouble. They find a girl by herself, waiting for a bus.

Curator’s notes

The Boys offers perhaps the most chilling depiction in Australian film of the violence within a family, and where it may eventually lead. It’s based on a play by Gordon Graham that premiered in Sydney in 1991, amid considerable controversy. Graham has said he was writing about characters he knew from his own upbringing in Perth, but that the initial inspiration came from the gang rape and murder of Anita Cobby, near Blacktown, in February 1986. Five men were convicted of that crime in 1987 – three of whom were brothers. The play was adapted for the screen by Stephen Sewell, and it ends with the three brothers about to abduct a young woman off the street.

The film has two distinct time strands, which some viewers found confusing. Most of the action in the house takes place over the 18 hours after Brett Sprague is released from prison. These scenes are intercut with short scenes from the future – from just after the crime, when Brett is seen burning his clothes in the backyard, to the day when all three are about to be sentenced in court. This script strategy shifts the drama away from contemplation of the crime itself, to the question of how the three young men could become ready to commit such a crime. In a real sense, it takes the story back into the home, where the dynamics of family dysfunction allow the story to become more universal.

David Wenham and Lynette Curran were both in the original stage production, and it is hard to imagine the film working so well without either of them. He had been seen in small roles, in films like Cosi (1986) and Greenkeeping (1992), but The Boys launched his career as an actor of serious power and screen presence. Brett Sprague is an absolutely terrifying character – intelligent, malevolent, manipulative and capable of extreme violence. His strategy, as soon as he returns, is to take control, separate his brother Glenn from the woman who has taken him away, and turn both brothers into his gang members. His hostility is directed at every person in the house in turn, until they are all cowed – although he never quite achieves mastery over his girlfriend Michelle, played by Toni Collette. In the final moments before the crime (clip three), he utters what amounts to a statement of his personal credo – ‘we’re all gods in our own world’. The comment seems like a restatement of the moral relativism of Friedrich Nietzsche, and may be read as a criticism of it. Nietzsche posited a ‘will to power’ as an ultimate human impulse and Brett Sprague certainly has that. Nietzsche also asked whether there was such a thing as a universal morality for all human beings. Sandra Sprague’s question to her son in jail (clip two), seems to suggest she believes his sense of superiority drives his violence. Brett’s philosophy – such as it is – is shown as coming more directly from his reading of science fiction and fantasy novels. He mentions Arrakis and the ‘moons of infinity’ in the final scene. The latter is fictional, a title invented for the film, but Arrakis was the home planet in Dune, Frank Herbert’s series of hugely popular novels.