Australia has always had a knack for producing brutal, unforgiving films inspired by true events. Be it the chilling Neo-Nazi gang drama Romper Stomper, tragic organised crime saga Animal Kingdom, or the horrific Snowtown, based upon Australia’s worst serial killer John Bunting, the Aussie film industry excels in taking the Neorealist film school approach to real stories, doping it up on amphetamines and then strapping it to a skyward rocket. Many independent directors having seemingly mastered an otherworldly talent for telling cold, profane and nihilistic tales about blue-collar suburban disharmony, areas strangled by degenerates, gangsters, extremists and general fuck-ups. Rowan Woods’ 1998 drama The Boys, an adaptation of Gordon Graham’s play of the same name that was loosely inspired by the 1986 murder of nurse Anita Cobby, resolutely follows that tradition, and it’s a crime in itself that the film is so little known, as it’s irrefutably one of the best examples of quintessentially Australian full-throttle cinema.
Brett Sprague (David Wenham) is a human wrecking ball. A domineering, vindictive and hateful man with more than a few traits of psychopathy, he has just been released from prison following a brutal assault on an off-licence owner with a screwdriver. Returning to the home he shares with his two brothers, Glenn & Stevie, along with the trio’s respective girlfriends and also their mother and her Maori boyfriend (who is derisively and incorrectly referred to as ‘Abo’ by the brothers, as they can’t even get their racism right, let alone anything else) it becomes immediately apparent that Brett is the king of this castle, all of the other occupants constantly treading on eggshells, terrified that a word or action out of place will result in his coming down on them like a ton of bricks. Brett is one of those people who can make the temperature in a room change when he walks into it. He isn’t a particularly chatty fellow, but his morose expression and dead eyes loudly communicate the rage and psychotically irrational paranoia simmering at all times beneath the surface. If passive-aggressively interrogating someone for a perceived slight doesn’t satisfy him, he merely escalates the situation to violence.
As soon as Brett cracks open his first of many homecoming beers, he sets about bullying and chastising his brothers for supposedly going soft during his incarceration, particularly Glenn, who he views as weak and pathetic for working a meagre job and allowing his lady to call the shots in the relationship. He then turns his toxic anger toward his own girlfriend, Michelle (a typically brilliant Toni Collette), who insists that she has remained faithful and has eagerly anticipated his return home, which he doesn’t believe a word of. Not that it would justify his behaviour in any way, but the film certainly benefits from the fact that everything pissing Brett off is just a product of his dangerously fucked up imagination, making it all the more disturbing as the viewer slowly realises that literally nothing will appease this man’s ego and suspicions.
I recall coming across one review of the film that slapped the label ‘The Taxi Driver of the 90s!’ in the heading, and in many respects, it’s an incredibly apt description. Like that classic, it is a slow-burning character study of a deeply damaged and volatile individual, a person who perpetually emanates the notion that their story is not going to have a nice outcome. It similarly dissects its protagonist’s deep-seated pathologies in a very frank manner that observes proceedings without judgement or insulting the audience’s intelligence. But whereas Travis Bickle had delusions about transcending his existence with extreme acts of noble heroism, Brett openly couldn’t care less. He wants everything his own way at all times, and if he has to sadistically cow you into a corner or break your nose to have it, it’s just a casual Tuesday to him.
In between the scenes of uncomfortable power play in the family home, we are greeted with flashforward sequences that show squad cars gathered around a rain-slicked bus stop at night, and the brothers being individually interrogated by police. The catalyst for these events is only subtly hinted at, and it serves to unsettlingly compound the fact that the younger Sprague brothers will obey absolutely any command that Brett gives them, no matter how squalid or unacceptable, lest they be on the receiving end of his wrath. The soundtrack, provided by acclaimed Australian experimental band The Necks, is by turns intimate and highly threatening, turning these scenes and those of Brett’s domestic unbliss into an arm that insidiously worms its way out of the screen and wraps its hand about the viewer’s throat.
Wenham, who was rightfully nominated by the Australian Academy for his performance, is as far a cry from the beloved and iconic Faramir as you can possibly get. Standing at 5’10 and having discernibly beefed himself up for the role, his tightly-wound physicality, piercing eyes, even a certain way he holds his mouth open while staring someone down, all suffice to have you clamouring for that cushion to shield yourself from the screen, at no point does he ever relax Brett away from the precipice of a violent eruption. He’s a horrible bully, and will certainly garner your hatred, but the residual hope that some poetic justice will unfurl and that Brett will ultimately be revealed as a coward is thoroughly dashed at every turn. Something is seriously wrong with him, but he’s also intelligent and calculating and doesn’t appear to be frightened of anybody. If you upset him and don’t immediately get the cannons turned on you, you can rest assured that he will strike later, and in a crueller fashion as he’s had more time to allow the transgression to fester. It’s a depressing truism that the only conclusive destinies for Brett are either a prison cell or a premature graveyard residency, but only insofar as he nonchalantly wastes both his own life and potential and that of all those close to him. It’s difficult to actually feel any kind of sympathy for him as he’s as unpleasant a monster as you can get, in socially realistic terms of course. Wenham’s and Woods’ respective skills as lead actor and director never allow the narrative to devolve into anything overcooked or cartoonish.
So, if you need your movie nights to be chipper and fun with a film that serves as good background noise, I’d steer well clear. But if you’re in the mood for something splendidly acted and photographed, tautly scripted, and devoid of sunshine and hope but with an abundance to say about family dysfunction, toxic masculinity and whether there are people who are objectively incapable of being rehabilitated, look no further. Films that unabashedly yet measuredly illustrate the abyss mind of the deviant are few and far between, and should always be lauded when they do, as a perfect warning if nothing else.