Classic Ellis: The Boys, March 1998

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.

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  1. If NSW Arts Minister George Souris was worth his salt, he’d (re)acquaint himself with this story. Sadly, however, I suspect he’s another Minister of the Crown who hasn’t read a novel or a play in a long time. If ever.
    As Minister for Hospitality, he’s come out with a straight face and blamed Friday’s violence on small bars - the new phenomenon that has been desperately trying to change the booze swilling culture of cashed up bogans surrounded by masses of beer taps, cheap furniture, glittering plasma screens showing the boxing and pokies.
    Standing arm in arms with his mates and donors, the Australian Hotels Association, Souris betrayed every artist, writer and musician who lives and works in Sydney by putting small bars on notice.
    To think that Souris would defend the new venues, who are among the largest employers of musicians, who allow patrons to enjoy a wine while reading a book in a pokies free zone would have been to much to ask.
    Souris should resign as arts minister immediately.

    • For me The Boys is one of the best movies ever made in Australia, and David Wenham is a very talented actor, maybe the best in Oz…

  2. Untitled, 1966

    The Boys?
    Let me tell you about my Glenn, Stevie and Brett.
    They were Pitsy, Crue, Hoey, Knighty, Davo, Banna, Keego, Morgan, Big Bob, Willo and Spaz.

    We ran around our suburbs in the late 70′s and early 80′s looking for alcohol, cigarettes, girls, money, drugs and trouble.
    And we found all of them.
    Half of us should have been dead by age 17 but some older brothers, all patched bikers, shielded us from our more psychotic enemies.

    At 21 I left for the City and university and work.
    A new life.

    I went back to those suburbs, back to the old bowling club, 2 weeks ago, after 25 years, to raise a glass to our friend in a wheelchair who was about to marry.
    It was 10.30 on a Saturday morn and there were 8 of us raising schooners to him, and to ourselves for having survived.
    Too many didn’t.
    Of those names above the roll-call stands like this:
    4 dead, 3 prison, 2 unknown and one living out in the sticks somewhere with his woman and a few kids.

    Why did we make it?
    Our parents and a generous serve of luck.
    Nothing more.

    The Boys?
    They were never going to make it anyway.

    • Untitled, 1966

      These kind of posts written by you I like…almost as good as the movie, The Boys.

      • Untitled, 1966

        Hoey and Crüe stole some drug money from my friend. They thought that 3000 dollars would buy them a new life “Up North”. Here was their chance to escape these suburbs, their belt weilding, schooner drinking, t- bone steak eating and a raffle ticket buying dads.
        It was their only way. I’d seen their bruises, I understood.
        But couldn’t allow.
        And so we frowned and fumed and spat our way through the streets demanding to know the whereabouts of these thieves.
        It wasn’t long. Word filtered through. Someone said “up north”. Someone else said , “yeh I think so”. A 17 yr old with 2 kids whispered to me “Tweed heads, a caravan park”.
        When I was 14 I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
        She remembered me and my shyness and so she leaned in and whispered, “the caravan park near the turn off”.

        My boys all gathered and we plotted a brutal revenge.
        We invented stories to our parents and off we drove.
        Up north.
        Petrol money, cigarette money, hamburger money, bourbon money.
        We didn’t need anything else.

        We drove through the afternoon and arrived at the caravan park late at night. Single bulbs burned and moths hovered, a dog sniffed, and a radio was turned on. I can still remember the song.
        We split into two’s and walked through this ill-lit ugliness, shadows cut through long planes of gritty gray black.
        B. saw them first, Hoey was sitting on the step of the caravan, smoking a cigarette and drinking a stubby.

        He looked up as we stepped out of the shadows. His expression was something i had never seen before, or since. For a second he looked to greet us warmly, as arriving friends; I could swear he was almost starting to smile and lift himself off the step to welcome us. But then his face transformed, who we were, why we were there, what we were about to do, it washed over his face and took all the colour away.
        He dropped his stubby.
        And into the caravan we climbed.
        Crüe was sitting at the small laminate pull out table, rolling a joint.
        He couldn’t move and his eyes started to water.
        I smiled at him as I pulled close the door behind me.

        One week later we saw them in the streets of our suburb.
        They bore evidence of their treachery; broken arms, black eyes, broken noses, missing teeth.
        We had marked them and ordered them to wander our streets as a warning to anyone else who thought to deceive us.
        Even their older brothers, who we always considered Men, they were 6 or7 years older, even they nodded to us respectfully and said,
        We nodded back.

        And so we walked back to our homes, to our loving parents.
        And they walked back to theirs, awaiting the belt buckle.

        Many years later Hoey’ girlfriend left him and her three kids to go off with her lesbian lover.
        He hung himself in the garage and left the kids to the state.
        Crüe was in and out of prison before he crashed his Torana XU1 into a tree near out favourite bush track.
        Some of the Boys who were there drinking said that he was gunning straight for it.

        A worked XU1 doing a ton.

        Sometimes when I think on it now,
        My mouth goes dry.

      • Untitled, 1966

        Thanks Helvi.

        • Never Enough Ellis

          Very well written, Untitled.

        • Thank you Untitled.

          • Untitled, 1966

            Ta Gents, but there is no need for your kind words. Really. It is just a memory.
            And we all have memories like this. You should tell some of yours.
            NNEllis, I remember you from long ago. You should write more often. William, don’t erase your posts. Leave them be.

      • Doesn’t the title “The trick of the psychopath’s trade made us believe that evil comes from others” just about say it all though.

        One could try to deconstruct that idea I suppose, but there’s nothing I can think of that leads me to disagree with it.

        As I posted elsewhere in a similar vein quite recently a lot of what is also involved comes down to a basic abuse of empathy. So that when a psychopath or sociopathic person simply allows you to feel that you’re on the same side with them they will be able to manipulate your perception of others negatively.

  3. Yes, it was a very powerful film. I tend to think the end worked fairly well. I remember that the boys spotted the pretty girl (Anita Cobby) and one of them said “Let’s get her”. They were all feeling emasculated, and this was their way of getting back at the world. It was pretty obvious what kind of mayhem they had in mind. And it was clever, because the viewer suddenly realises that everything he has seen has only been prologue. And also how men could be driven to such a crime by their demons.

  4. To Reader 1 : Thank you for that link. It seems the psychopaths have risen to the top all too easily :

    “The simplest, clearest and truest portrait of the psychopath is given in the titles of three seminal works on the subject: Without Conscience by Robert Hare, The Mask of Sanity by Hervey Cleckley, and Snakes in Suits by Hare and Paul Babiak. A psychopath is exactly that: conscienceless. The most important thing to remember is that this is hidden from view behind a mask of normality that is often so convincing that even experts are deceived and, as a result, they become the Snakes in Suits that control our world. That’s the short answer.”

    from ‘The Trick of the Psychopath’s Trade’ interview with Laura Knight-Jadczyk (and others)

    It has been my view for some years that Rudd, Abbott and Assange in particular are psychopathic.

    There is no conscience, no empathy and no remorse in them other than a counterfeit variety. They understand others’ pain and suffering only at an intellectual level; ‘whatever it takes’ is their motto, and devil take the hindmost.

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