The Boy is a collection of high-minded fake scares run through an art-film filter. Rather than employing the sort of jump tactics that depend on revealing a prospective stalker to be a harmless best friend, inanimate object, or household pet, director Craig William Macneill favors lingering, Kubrickian master landscape shots that dwarf the titular character, Ted (Jared Breeze), a budding sociopath, as he stews in his sunbaked malaise. Every image, landscape or other, concerns the same subject and action: The boy contemplates killing targets that democratically include a variety of barnyard animals, as well as most of the human characters, who’re cursed to inhabit the film’s barren desert realm. (The setting is an evocatively seedy motel that appears to have been inherited from Norman Bates and positioned somewhere south of the Zabriskie Point.) “Scare” really isn’t even the right word for these sequences, which more ambitiously court an atmosphere of stagnant unease and apprehension that’s ultimately unrelieved, over and over, by the same lack of physical completion. Ted, who enjoys luring critters to their death on the highway, might directly kill something, but doesn’t, not until we’re closer to the inevitable, bluntly telegraphed slaughter that’s reserved for the film’s ending so as to cap it off with something resembling a point.
Macneill isn’t an unskilled filmmaker, but he’s preoccupied with a slim story that fails to support his bloated, pop-existentialist aesthetic. The Boy starts promisingly. The mountainside ominously overlooking the motel is practically a principle character in its own right (and more interesting than most of the people), and a nearby junkyard throbs with primordial menace. There’s something deeply creepy, in particular, about the way the moss is shown growing throughout the beat-up cars. These images fleetly complement Ted’s mounting isolation and resentment, stuck as he is at said motel with no one else but his laughably clueless dad (David Morse) and the occasional guest who repulses him. But the images, evocative on their isolated terms, cumulatively wear one down. Every sequence is designed to portentously draw out the inevitable through ghoulish non-incident, and every shot is held for far too long, ultimately scanning as fussily arranged art poses rather than as the signifiers of mysteriously banal madness that Macneill clearly intends. Breeze doesn’t help either; his lack of affect might be truthful to the nature of the sort of introverted killer he’s playing, but his performance is as dully unvaried as Macneill’s formalism. This character, however unpleasant, simply doesn’t deserve a film that runs for a punishing 110 minutes. The Boy is a sporadically frightening slow burn with a fatally overlong fuse.