“Boy A,” one of the most gripping, thought provoking dramas ever to ponder crime and punishment, opens with a stark white light. The ghostly illumination suggests a clean slate and new beginning for its soon-to-be-introduced title character. As a child in the UK, Jack Burridge (Andrew Garfield) acted as accomplice to a sociopathic peer in the heinous murder of a young girl. The notorious crime culminates in several years’ incarceration for both boys.
Years later, Jack has reached adulthood and is released under a shroud of secrecy. His uncle Terry (sensational Peter Mullan) acts as guardian angel to the released offender, finding Jack a rental room while re-introducing him to a society from which he’s long been absent. To symbolize the long-institutionalized relative’s release, Terry presents Jack with a pair of Nike “Escape” sneakers. Ferociously attentive to Jack’s community re-integration, it’s not until much later in “Boy A” that we discover the psychological underpinnings behind his loyalty to this surrogate son.
Meanwhile, Jack’s release is a hot media story. While unaware of his specific whereabouts, the British newspapers and television stations know that he’s out on the streets. A composite sketch of Jack’s suspected adult appearance is released to the public, above the headline, “Evil Comes of Age.” Meanwhile, Terry assists the socially awkward youth in acquiring work at a delivery service.
Soon, Jack meets romantically assertive secretary Michelle (Katie Lyons). She becomes his girlfriend. He drops ecstasy at a rave party, and pals around with friend and co-worker Phillip (Taylor Doherty). Slowly but surely, he’s acquired a life, even as he keeps his past under wraps at the insistence of Terry.
Director John Crowley uses shrewd chronological flip-flops to challenge viewers. We never understand the complete crime until his film’s final reel, allowing audience members to follow Jack’s challenging community re-integration without judging his felonious past deed. Even after coming full circle, with ample knowledge of the crime, we still have an understanding of how the whole grim affair came to pass.
Garfield is superb. There’s an absolutely authentic sense of the tentative, cautious tightrope walked by this fragile offender-come-free man, who sleeps with bed sheets pulled over his head. Who do your trust with your secret? Can you ever live down a horrific past mistake acted out as an immature child? Will the Mark of Cain forever brand and shape your future?
As girlfriend Michelle, Lyons does a masterful job of embodying a woman both intrigued and frustrated by her new squeeze’s ambiguous identity. She makes us understand why only an up-front, candid extrovert like Michelle could ever gain Jack’s affections. A more cautious muse would most certainly scare away this walking-on-eggshells ghost of a man. Mullan, playing Jack’s haunted, hard-drinking uncle, is brilliant. A mostly-actor and sometimes-director (“The Magdalene Sisters”), Mullan depicts a divorced dad with a closet full of his own wounds, regrets and skeletons. Eventually, they come back to haunt both him and Jack.
Understanding a crime is different than condoning it. “Boy A” accomplishes what “Monster” also achieved. It allows us insight into how and why terrible crimes and unspeakable acts are committed. Meanwhile, with tremendous tact and knowing subtlety, it informs us of what released offenders are up against. Originally shown on British television, “Boy A” recently cleaned up at the 2008 BAFTA Awards (snagging “Best” awards for direction, actor, editing, and photography). The accolades are well deserved. “Boy A” is a brilliant film.