A chilling, corrosive depiction of the banality of evil, Rowan Woods' powerful debut film essentially covers a 24-hour period as it depicts the events leading up to a never-seen, but evidently hideous, crime.

A chilling, corrosive depiction of the banality of evil, Rowan Woods’ powerful debut film essentially covers a 24-hour period as it depicts the events leading up to a never-seen, but evidently hideous, crime. Boasting extraordinary performances, and an intensity that is at times almost unbearable, Woods has come up with a film that may be too confrontational for some — although there’s little violence onscreen — and yet which, with strong critical support, should find a niche audience. After launching in competition at the Berlin fest, it should make its mark with other fest bookings in the coming months and be taken up by courageous distribs. It will also be a major boost for the career of lead actor and associate producer David Wenham.

Pic is based on Gordon Graham’s 1991 award-winning play of the same name, which was, in turn, inspired by the appalling rape and murder of a young Sydney nurse a few years ago. This genesis is similar to that of last year’s “Blackrock,” which also was based on real events and came to the screen via the stage. But “The Boys” is infinitely more successful.

Pic opens with the release of Brett Sprague (Wenham) from prison after serving a sentence for assault with a deadly weapon and grievous bodily harm. Bringing with him a coffee table he made behind bars, he returns with his younger brother Stevie (Anthony Hayes) to the drab suburban house where he grew up with a third sibling, Glenn (John Polson). Also living in the house is Sandra (Lynette Curran), mother of the three, and her current lover George (Pete Smith), a Maori who is derisively referred to as “Abo” by the boys.

The superficially charming but possibly psychopathic Brett, whose philosophy is “Do it to them,” was imprisoned for an attack on the owner of a liquor store. He’s on parole and forbidden to return to the scene of his crime, yet that’s just what he does, with a mixture of menace and bravado. It’s clear he’s heading for major trouble and is likely to drag his brothers down with him.

The slow-witted Stevie, whose pregnant girlfriend Nola (Anna Lise) nervously observes the events that unfold, is content to go along with anything Brett proposes. Glenn on the other hand, has made some effort to escape from his environment: His wife, Jackie (Jeanette Cronin), is eager for him to make something of himself, and he has a job, though he takes the day off to celebrate Brett’s return. The other key character is Brett’s g.f. Michelle (Toni Collette), who has waited for him. She’s greeted with a mixture of suspicion, hatred and lust. Brett’s impotence provokes Michelle’s furious accusation that he indulged in homosexual sex while in prison, resulting in one of the film’s major confrontations.

Brett is also angered by the fact that while he’s been away, someone has stolen his stash from a padlocked locker in his bedroom. He suspects various members of his family, and as the day wears on, and he gets drunker and more stoned, his rage mounts. Though he talks about finding “peace and serenity” with his brothers, the unstable Brett is clearly a dangerous man, his bottled-up frustrations and anger about to explode — as he says, “the way God planned it.”

Screenwriter Stephen Sewell and director Woods punctuate this inexorable tragedy with flash-forward sequences, introduced by titles. The first of these, “Eighteen Hours Later,” depicts Brett burning presumably blood-stained clothing. The second, “Two Days Later,” shows the police arriving in a driving rainstorm to make arrests. These inserts, distracting at first, succeed in compounding the feeling of dread: Clearly, the brothers are about to be involved in a shocking crime. The film’s all the stronger for its refusal to show the brutal act.

Wenham, who played Brett onstage, is chilling in the role. The actor, whose range is further demonstrated by his upcoming light comedy role in Peter Duncan’s “A Little Bit of Soul,” gets right under the skin of his alarming character. Curran, the other holdover from the stage, repeats her role as the tragic mother unable to control her sons. Collette gives her best screen performance to date as Michelle, a hard-boiled young woman whose confidence erodes as the day proceeds. Polson’s maddeningly compliant Glenn and Hayes’ quite hopeless Stevie are other vivid characters in a flawless ensemble.

Cinematographer Tristan Milani makes potent use of closeups to create a claustrophobically tense atmosphere, which is enhanced by Luigi Pittorino’s grungy production design. Slow motion is used sparingly for dramatic effect. Editor Nick Meyers has cut to a sharp 84 minutes, during which not a second is wasted.

The Boys

Australian

Production

A Globe Films (Australia) release of an Arenafilm production, in association with the Australian Film Commission, Premium Movie Partnership for Showtime, SBS Independent, Axiom, Screen Partners, New South Wales Film & TV Office. (International sales: Axiom Films, London.) Produced by Robert Connolly, John Maynard. Executive producer, Douglas Cummins. Directed by Rowan Woods. Screenplay, Stephen Sewell, based on the play by Gordon Graham.

Crew

Camera (Movielab color), Tristan Milani; editor, Nick Meyers; music, the Necks; production design, Luigi Pittorino; costume design, Annie Marshall; sound (Dolby), Sam Petty; associate producer, David Wenham; assistant director, Emma Schofield; casting, Lesley Burgess. Reviewed at Greater Union Pitt Centre, Sydney, Feb. 3, 1998. (In Berlin Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 84 MIN.

With

Brett Sprague - David Wenham Michelle - Toni Collette Sandra Sprague - Lynette Curran Glenn Sprague - John Polson Stevie Sprague - Anthony Hayes Jackie - Jeanette Cronin Nola - Anna Lise George (Abo) - Pete Smith
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