On The Boy (2016). Spoilers, and CW for references to psychological and physical abuse.
The Boy, a film from 2016, written by Stacey Menear and directed by William Brent Bell, has been largely-forgotten, but deserves better. It tries to be to patriarchy what Get Out, released the following year, would be to racism.
The film was marketed as a specimen of the creepy haunted doll subgenre of supernatural Horror, which enjoyed a rather half-hearted renaissance in the wake of the massive success of The Conjuring in 2012, and its breakout star (and best actor) Annabelle. The Boy spends a good part of its first two acts pretending to be just such a creepy haunted doll movie… though precisely how hard its pretending is open to question, as we will see.
It’s a surprise to me that I like this film as much as I do. Firstly, the director, William Brent Bell, is generally a purveyor of crap. Misogynistic crap, in one marked instance. Secondly, The Boy does things which I generally – and ideologically – dislike. It has a ‘twist’ ending which…
If you’re reading on, I’m assuming you have either seen the movie or don’t care
…which supposedly recontextualizes the entire film, and makes it clear that, while you may have thought you were watching a story about a creepy haunted doll, you were actually watching a story with no supernatural elements whatever, beyond the usual implausibilities built into most movies via the aesthetic ideology of ‘realism’.
I do not like ‘twist’ endings. I especially do not like ‘twist’ endings which also function as ‘narrative substitution’. Like fourth wall breaking, I generally find narrative substitution to be a cheap trick which can give the appearance of cleverness while actually saying very little, and generally unravelling the text’s coherence of theme and character development.
I do not like stories which appear to be supernatural but which turn out to have a ‘natural’ explanation. I do not even particularly like stories which maintain an ambiguity as to whether or not the events of the story are supernatural. Firstly, such stories tend to cheat. The ambiguity tends to be a pretence. In order to manufacture the supposed ambiguity the story must impose an overpowering natural reading, even if it pretends not to.
More importantly, for me, by undermining or eschewing the supernatural, a supernaturally-inflected film cheats itself of the vast and fertile potentialities of polysemy that is the uncanny, the symbolic, and the truly irrational, confining itself instead to the banal personal irrational of the individual disordered psyche. The great strength of uncanny storytelling is that it deals with the generalised irrational. Irrationality as society, as history, as life. It depicts characters experiencing a world that is irrational – and hopelessly so – all around them, and deep in its structure. I am convinced that this hits closer to a true and visceral expression of the experience of living in modernity.
The Boy does all the stuff I dislike. Its twist recontextualises the film, substitutes one narrative for another, and removes the supernatural from the story, substituting one disordered psyche for what looked like an irrational universe. Even so, I like it.
In The Boy, Greta, a young American woman, arrives at an isolated, rambling house in rural England to take up a position as a nanny to a single male child. The job is suspiciously well paid and the employers – an elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Heelshire – have been trying and failing to get a nanny to stay for about a year. It becomes apparent why when we meet their ‘son’, Brahms. He is a life-size mannequin of a boy of approximately eight years, with articulated limbs and a pale porcelain face with large, glass eyes. The Heelshires – who, incidentally, address each other as ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ – treat the doll as if it is real. They talk to it, feed it (all the food is simply thrown away after Brahms’ ‘meals’), read to it, put it to bed in its pyjamas, etc. They consult its moods. Indeed, it is made clear to the bemused Greta that she has secured the position only because Brahms, in a private ‘conversation’ with his parents behind a closed door, has told them he ‘wants her’. None of the previous applicants have been as pretty as her, she is told.
Greta takes this as the Heelshires engaging in a kind of ritual by which they themselves decide that she is suitable. We, the viewers primed by the way the film has been marketed and how it presents itself, wonder if the doll is actually making its feelings felt.
If Greta is to be Brahms’ nanny, she will have to follow a rigid and detailed daily schedule – wake him up, give him breakfast, read him poetry, play his music, etc. And she will have to commit to treating the doll as a living person, even when she is alone with it. She must speak to it as though it were a child. Greta, in a convincingly conveyed whirl of puzzlement and embarrassment, agrees. After all the ominous hints you’d expect, the Heelshires go off on their first holiday in years, leaving Greta alone in the huge mansion with only the doll for company.
Through conversations with the terribly nice male lead, a local man called Malcolm who is employed to bring supplies up to the house, we discover certain things. Brahms was a real boy who died in a fire when he was 8 years old. He was considered odd. A village girl of his age was brought up to play with him regularly and one day she was discovered dead in the woods. The fire which killed Brahms started in his nursery the same day. It is implied that Brahms – who can be seen in old photos looking at the girl with a mixture of hatred and ownership – killed her, and the fire was in some way a result of this. Greta, meanwhile, is in England on the run from an abusive ex-boyfriend, Cole. She was pregnant with his baby when he beat her up so badly that she miscarried.
Greta, understandably, does not follow any of the rules of the house once she is alone with the doll. The doll appears not to like this. The doll seems to move by itself when not being observed. When Greta showers, an unseen agency purloins her dress and jewellery. She discovers that a lock of her hair has been snipped without her knowledge. Greta is tricked into going up into an attic where she is trapped when the hatch closes – apparently so that she cannot go on a date with Malcolm. Brahms, it seems, is jealous. The doll’s campaign of intimidation – all unseen – is combined with acts of seeming kindness. On one occasion she is hiding from the doll in her room, sees goings on in the corridor under the door, opens the door and discovers that Brahms has made her a sandwich – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We know she likes these because we saw her making herself one earlier. Apparently so did Brahms. Looking in on the doll in its bedroom – which is of course stocked with all the obligatory creepy kids’ automata one could hope for – she finds Brahms sat next to the list of rules. The message is clear. Follow the rules and I’ll be nice to you. Disobey them and…
Thus intimidated, Greta complies. But she is not simply fearful. For a while, she seems totally wrapped up in Brahms, almost hypnotised. One of the things this movie has going for it is the acting. Lauren Cohan conveys Greta’s feelings with subtlety, so that the obvious implication – that Brahms is becoming a substitute for her dead child – is present but not over-inflected. Greta rejects a proposal for a further date from Malcolm, not because she doesn’t like him (generally he is this #MeToo movie’s representation of #NotAllMen) but because ‘Brahms wouldn’t like it’, and she is beginning to feel that she owes Brahms all her attention. Again, Cohan conveys the way in which Greta is becoming institutionalised and gaslit, the way she has been – without realising it – bullied into compliance and service to a male ruler/child via a judicious combination of threats and kind gestures.
Instead of a date, Greta shows Malcolm her ‘discovery’ – that the doll is inhabited by a spirit – by getting Brahms to perform. They put him in a chalk circle, leave the room, knock on the wall, come back in, and find the doll in a totally different position. Their reaction is enchantment. Ironically, it pushes them back together. They begin to act like proud parents. However, Brahms is much less happy when Greta and Malcolm retire to a bedroom to do what mummies and daddies do when the kids are asleep. He interrupts them by blasting out his music – which is on a gramophone for some reason, despite this story happening in the present day.
Coitus is further interruptus when, inevitably, Cole the abusive ex-boyfriend turns up – apparently just having escaped Hillbilly Elegy. He pleads for her forgiveness and for her to come back with him, all while using physical, verbal, and emotional manipulation and intimidation to make it clear that ‘no’ will not be an acceptable answer. “I won’t ever let you go” is both threat and doom, pronounced as passion and romance. He attempts to take Greta with him despite her refusals. Brahms does not like this. Not even a little bit. Greta, you see, is his now. He has been told as much. Before they commit joint suicide in a cutaway scene, Brahms’ parents write him a goodbye letter in which they say specifically “the girl is yours now”.
After Brahms’ attempts to intimidate Cole misfire, and Cole angrily smashes the doll, Brahms must resort to more direct methods. The very real, very adult, and very large Brahms, scarred by the fire and wearing a porcelain doll mask, bursts out of the wall and murders the shit out of Cole. He then he turns his violent attentions on Greta and Malcolm. Clearly, it’s time for Malcolm to stop being in the way and for Greta to… well… start playing with the real Brahms instead of his avatar.
Brahms, we learn, has been living in a secret room in the house. He can move around the house unseen because of a hidden system of corridors which run behind the walls and between the rooms. He has spy holes everywhere. His daily routine rules are posted up in the appropriate places. For instance, the secret corridor behind the doll’s bedroom wall has a sign that says “Kiss Goodnight”, which is the last step on Greta’s daily list. Most disturbingly, when Greta finds Brahms’ actual bedroom, the squalid bachelor nest he’s been living in, she finds, on his filthy camp bed, a homemade mannequin wearing her stolen dress and her stolen jewellery. Brahms is the ultimate incel shut-in. And just as she has been unknowingly interacting with him via a mannequin avatar, so he has been… um… ‘interacting’ with her via his best approximation of a RealDoll or a waifu pillow.
Things go about the way you’d expect. The film very ostentatiously sticks to its post-#MeToo ethos by having Malcolm knocked out, and having Greta come back to save him, defeating Brahms herself. She stops running away from abusive men and takes back her power, etc.
As I say, normally a Shyamalan-style twist of the type described would annoy me. But, for a start, I am unsure exactly how committed the film is to fooling us. And if it is trying to fool us, it does it in an unusually clever way which displays a high level of media and genre literacy and self-awareness. To me, moments like the bit where Greta discovers that someone has snipped away a bit of her hair make it hard to see the film as holding up much pretence. That detail strikes me as hard to reconcile with a story about an animated doll. It seems very blatantly to suggest an entirely different narrative, namely the stalker story.
Beyond this, the motions the film goes through in order to keep up the pretence are entirely based on utilising built-in audience assumptions about what kind of film they are watching. The film is trading on the fact that audiences have been trained to understand what a marketed media text is, what it offers to provide, via widely understood sets of very standardised aesthetics, which have been developed very consciously by the modern narrative culture industries. Audiences encounter the aesthetics chosen for the marketing of a film in the paratexts of advertising long before they get to the main text itself. These marketing aesthetics are the primary way in which such cultural products communicate with audiences now. This is true to the point where modern films often have wildly incoherent, random, redundant, flailing plots but are tonally designed to within a millimetre of marketing perfection. It doesn’t matter if plots connect as long as the film contains the sets of aesthetics which need to be put into the marketing in order to give the product a clear and immediately comprehensible brand identity. A perfect example of this is Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Javier Bardem is the Villain in This One. Its ‘plot’ does things so that the correct aesthetics can be in the marketing. The film itself is an exercise in trying to reverse engineer something plausibly passable as a story out of these disparate aesthetic elements. In the post-Conjuring moment when The Boy came along, you created such a brand identity for a film with certain signifiers. Aside from lighting and filtering and acting conventions, it comes down to music box themes and those creepy playroom automata, etc. For an example of a film which plays this game on the square, look at The Woman in Black.
The pretence in the first two acts of The Boy, which sets up the ‘twist’, is constructed of a fake construction of media communication. The film even winks at this when it has the obligatory dream sequence ending in a jump scare that is always in every film of the type it is pretending to be. The dream sequence signposts itself as just that, and parodies the gothic story as which it is masquerading, by having Greta in the dream walk around in a very uncharacteristic silk nightgown, through corridors lined with flickering candles (not to be seen in the actual house), during a thunder storm. This is the garb the film wears and then throws off. The narrative substitution is of a story for a non-story made of aesthetics.
And so onto the story.
The reader will have picked up on what this film is doing. This is a story about male abuse of women, male feelings of ownership and authority over women, male manipulation and intimidation of women, gaslighting in abusive relationships, etc. Brahms is an even more perverse and dangerous version of Cole. Brahms is Cole, and every man who fits that template, blown up into a monstrous threat.
What makes me rate this film quite highly is that it actually seems to have given some thought to why and how this stuff happens, and delineates some of the most disturbing features of male patriarchal feelings of dominance and entitlement. It is prepared to mention some of the more perverse aspects of capitalist patriarchy. It is prepared to raise the issues of class, exploitation, and fetishism of women as commodities. Brahms considered himself entitled to a village girl who was provided for his pleasure – in a sort of junior version of prima nocta – even when he was a child, before he was scarred by fire or by puberty. The feeling of entitlement is simply built into him. The fire does not cause it. Rather, the fire is him burning down the world after being told no, and facing consequences for his violent retaliation.
It is not enough for this film simply declare this dysfunction an aspect of maleness in some essentialist way. Malcolm is, as I say, very much the Good Guy. Even so, in a telling moment, his flirting with Greta tips over from being charming into wheedling over-persistence and a refusal to take no for an answer. It is no coincidence that in this scene he playfully pretends to be asking Brahms (the doll) to back him up, and pantomimes pally, blokey camaraderie with it. Also, in the Heelshire household it is clear that Mummy is very much the leading spirit. We seem to be looking at a case of a monster created by a stereotypical dominating, emasculating mother. But Mrs Heelshire is implied to be deathly afraid of her son. Despite being a dominant personality, despite being a natural dictator when in the role of employer, when embodying her class privilege in relation to a worker, she is nonetheless trapped in a servile and timid role in relation to her own son. When you look back at the original situation from the perspective of the end, the Heelshires seem like hostages who negotiated an escape from their gaoler.
The film is questioning as to the relation of this kind of abusive male sexism to social class. Brahms is implied to be the pampered, spoiled, worshipped only-child of rich and arrogant upper-class parents. He is literally the petty princeling in the castle which overlooks the village. There is no denying that this plays a huge part in making Brahms who he is, nor does the film want to deny it (so to speak). And yet Cole is resolutely blue collar. The difference between them, as I say, is one of scale. Cole can dominate Greta using verbal manipulation and physical intimidation. Brahms has an entire edifice of wealth – figurative and literal – which he uses as a machine in which to trap and control Greta, who is very decidedly working class, herself a wage labourer. We see the monthly money turn up. And the list of daily rules Greta must follow is nothing less than the subjection of the worker to capitalist time regimentation.
The central symbol in the film is, of course, the doll. Like time regimentation, the doll is a quintessential symbol of the capitalist epoch in that it signifies commodity fetishism: a social situation in which people have social relations with things instead of with other people, the reduction of human bodies to commodities, to ownable and posable machines in a human image, and the corresponding elevation of the commodity, of capital, to a kind of life. This is precisely why the doll is such a persistent image of Horror and the uncanny. The creepy supernatural doll is commodity fetishism reified. It is the product, the commodity, with unnatural and threatening alien life. It signifies humanity reduced to a commodity. It is humans forced to have social relations – brutal, terrifying, unnatural relations – with hostile living commodities. In many such depictions of creepy supernatural dolls, the relationship is also explicitly exploitative. The doll derives its life directly from the human who supposedly owns it (but who actually it owns) through a kind of dominating vampirism. In The Boy, the exploitative nature of the doll is even plainer, in that the doll is literally the capital – the workplace technology – whereby the worker is exploited by the hidden, vampiric capitalist employer. The doll is the machinery the worker must manipulate in the workplace to create the value that is appropriated by the employer. The doll is the material conduit of the relation of employed to employer. The doll is manipulated by Great but in so doing she is serving it, and in serving it she is serving the employer it represents. She she does the work of reading to it, talking to it, kissing it goodnight, she is the ‘variable capital’ transmitting value to her employer via the ‘constant capital’ that is the doll, his property. This becomes apparent only once the doll is smashed and we meet the person who has been using it as a kind of joystick to control Greta.
But the doll is simultaneously a metaphor for male childhood, continuing into adulthood. The violent, threatening, abusive man who considers women his property is also a manchild, his emotional maturation eternally arrested. Because the doll has both these metaphorical valences simultaneously, and because they do not contradict each other, the effect is one of a synthesis of propositions. The doll is both capital and male privilege via eternal infantilisation. Thus, male privilege via eternal infantilisation is capital. It is an aspect of the social relations that constitute capital.
In one of the most interesting moments in the film, Greta manages to subdue the real adult Brahms, bringing him down from his violent rampage, by speaking to him sternly, like a strict mummy. She tells him to go to bed and he obeys. While superficially in charge (a bit like Mrs Heelshire, who seemed like the ruler of the house but was actually a fragile, trembling slave) Greta, in the mummy role, is acquiescing to a role demanded and deemed proper by the patriarchal nuclear family, and thus submitting to male authority, to Brahms’ authority. By performing the act of chastising and ordering him, she is accepting a subordinate role. Greta is only pretending, however. The crunch comes when Brahms, tucked up in bed, wants his goodnight kiss. Greta tells him no, because he’s been naughty that day. The kiss – the bestowal of physical affection – is the crunch moment. Brahms, even in the role of the obedient and chastised boy doing as mummy tells him, will not tolerate being told no. Boys learn the rules of patriarchy, the rules whereby they can own and control women, in the nuclear heteronormative family, the basic social unit of bourgeois society, the means by which the workforce and patriarchy are simultaneously reproduced. They learn that women are theirs to order and hit and fuck from their mummies. When mummy cuddles and coddles and kisses, boys in the bourgeois nuclear family, are learning the principles that will lead them not only to accept the domestic system of bourgeois society but also to exploit it to abuse and rape. Male sexist dominance and sexual aggression is thus in itself a form of arrested emotional development. The bourgeois nuclear family is designed to produce just such a syndrome. And it produces it in all men raised in its clutches. Brahms, like Ted Bundy or Warren Jeffs, is simply an example of normal male belief in patriarchal culture being acted upon without any restraint.
Greta, the working class woman, the nanny, is said to be owned by Brahms. His territoriality regarding her clearly signifies that this is how he views it, and the Heelshires’ letter makes it explicit. She has been purchased. The male sense of ownership of a woman is not simply coincidental with the capitalist sense of ownership of a worker: the two are aspects of each other, intermeshed and inextricable. Moreover, the locus of Greta’s identity in the working class is the family home, domestic labour, child care. The woman’s enslavement to capitalism is thus seen as a layering of exploitations: economic, domestic, maternal. Greta spends literally all her time in the home of the Heelshires which, being her place of work, is also her version of the office or the factory. The worker’s entire time and life has been purchased. And the job, which is done to a strict temporal and behavioural regimentation, is to playact being the dutiful and beautiful domestic skivvy, the loving mother/servant. The film depicts a working class woman as a combined prisoner, abuse victim, exploited worker, potential sexual slave, and mother, with all these roles tangled up together. Her commodification as a worker is also her commodification as a mother, as a child-rearer, as a provider of sexual satisfaction to hidden patriarchal abusive authority. Her commodification is also her objectification. She is being looked at and watched – for her prettiness but also for her adherence to the rules of the job – at every moment in the house, by a male eye. Her objectification becomes literal, becomes fetishism, in both the sexual sense and the sense of commodity fetishism, when Brahms makes his doll of her. She has been reduced to a golem made of the attire designed to signify femaleness, and is kept in her proper station: on her master’s bed.
The secret aspect of Greta’s job – you could call it the occult secret of the value she creates, to be found in the “hidden abode of production” as Marx described the factory – is also the implied sexual enslavement of the women to the combined figure of the husband/employer, and thus to patriarchy as an integral aspect of the capitalist mode of production.
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