Little that we know – or imagine we know – of the fibro suburbs and the chronically jobless or the lure of drink or the wordless despair of working-class lives without aim or fulfilment or flavour or destination will prepare us for the fierce and punishing impact – like the smash of a heavy spanner to the bridge of the nose – of The Boys, a film by Gordon Graham, Stephen Sewell, Rowan Woods, Robert Connolly and John Maynard that derives from events that led to the pack-rape, stabbing and ghastly decapitation of the nurse and sometime beauty queen Anita Cobby, by three sourhearted brothers with time on their hands and a grudge or two against the universe. For it is, as in Mike Leigh’s films, the thing itself: you think this is how it must have been.
Gordon Graham wrote the play about ten years ago, and I saw it at the time. Much has changed, but precious little of its bruised and desolate heart. The essential conundrum, how could something as basic and unremarkable and potentially admirable as brotherly fellow-feeling lead to such an end, baits and mocks us as before. It’s a film that goes home with you and sits by your bed looking at you accusingly when you turn off the light, and is down in the kitchen with you in the morning, smirking over the Cornflakes.
At the film’s beginning, Brett Sprague returns home from a year in the slammer to find his grimy-fibro family in disorder. His younger brother Stevie has a teenage girlfriend, Nola, up the duff and living in. His older brother Glenn has moved out with his girlfriend Jackie, and his mother Sandra (shades of Hamlet) has taken up with Abo, a Maori drifter. His own girlfriend Michelle, moreover, treats him with a mixture of sexual energy and ball-busting scorn.
Like the late Prince of Denmark, Brett is displeased by the changes in his once ordered kingdom. He is, we gather, a control freak – a bit like (perhaps) Paul Keating, whose background, verbal skills and contemptuous know-it-all curve of the mouth he probably shares. He wants things back the way they were. He wants, moreover, some level of homicidal revenge on the bottleshop owner (the always marvellous Peter Hehir) who not only put him in gaol but sliced his belly with a carving knife.
As played by David Wenham, Brett’s mixture of suppuration, scar tissue, tenderness, flammable menace, beer-sucking silence, lazy arrogance and bloodymindedness adds up to the best and deepest and fullest etching of such a man on film since, I guess, M. Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. As in all great characters in world drama (Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, Willy Loman, Jimmy Porter) you are seeing him, although he is very familiar, up there for the first time. Every move he makes is both unexpected and, within his toey tempestuous character, inevitable. The scene where, caught short with unwelcome impotence and fiddling fruitlessly in his trousers, he reacts to Michelle’s taunt ‘You took it up the arse, didn’t you?’ with murderous roaring violence, is one of the most frightening (and understandable from both perspectives) I’ve ever seen.
As Michelle the ever-surprising Toni Collette is feisty, horny, contemptuous, foul-mouthed and unrecognisable; and working class to his painted fingertips. So too is Lyn Curran as Sandra, the weary life-worn mum; nothing humans surprises her any more, nothing promised brings her hope; a fearful grimy forgiveness of expected evil is all her lot; a collaboration with the worst. As Glenn and Stevie, the sons who follow, like wary disciples, Brett’s lordly hunger for sacrificial blood, John Polson (the smarter, more salvageable one) and Anthony Hayes (the dumber, more passive and wreckable one) add volumes of doomed goodness to the tragedy. If only, we feel, they had lived by a beach, and so been able each morning to wrestle the battering surf, or cleanse their egos on a bucking windsurfer, to booze less and gripe less, and get the dirty water off their chests with athletic challenge and the odd guitar solo, none of it would have happened, not the worst of it anyway. Anna Lise as the fearful dim pregnant Nola is equally good, and near definitive, and as Jackie, the spiky restless fiancee begging Glenn to break with his toxic brothers and drive off down the road with her, Jeanette Cronin, long a favourite actress of mine, communicates more than most Oscar laureates and has us in tears.
I’m sure its long rehearsals helped, and its testing pre-history as a play in several versions. The young director Rowan Wood has, however, maddeninly achieve a kind of lasting masterpiece yet failed his primary audience by omitting the murder itself, or any hint of the murder (a few frantic blurred free-frames were all that was needed), and smugly waiting the critics’ echoing applause in the empty cinema – depending on the local audience’s pre-knowlege of the Cobby pack-rape and decapitation (it will not be as widely remembered in, say, Somalia) to fill the maddening silence at the end. He is a towering fool to do this, and he or his masters should fixt it. They would do as well to leave the murder out of Othello, having worked up so gravely and tenderly to it, for the good and solid reason that the rape-murder failed in Blackrock. So, your morons, did the film.
It is nonetheless (and I may be wrong in my surly caveat) our film of the year – one that like Angel Baby opens up to us a moral universe, and a chapter of the battered heart, that we did not believe could ever engage our sympathies. See it just for the performances, if you need a reason, Wenham’s and Polson’s in particular, as the Lucifer and Gabriel of Australia’s wounded underworld. See it fast. It may be gone very soon.