The boys are back in town
The re-release of a 1998 film reminds us of how little has changed when it comes to violence against women

The recent re-release on the Australian film festival circuit of Rowan Woods’ award-winning 1998 movie The Boys – which tells the story of three brothers whose toxic attemps at bonding and one-upmanship culminate in extreme violence against women – brings with it many ghosts. The Boys has a privileged place in Australian film culture for its inclusion of strikingly raw, before-they-were famous performances of now internationally celebrated actors like Toni Collette and David Wenham. But from a broader perspective, the film conjures up other, more potent memories. The Boys may have been informed by the story of Anita Cobby, the 26-year-old nurse who was abducted, raped and murdered by five men – three of whom were brothers – in Sydney’s western suburbs in 1986, but, watching in 2016, we are reminded no less of Jill Meagher.

The film follows Brett Sprague (Wenham) on his return to his family home after a period of incarceration for assault against the owner of a bottle shop. Tensions rise with his brothers (John Polson and Anthony Hayes), their girlfriends (Collette, Jeanette Cronin and Anna Lise Phillips) and their mother (Lynette Curran). Uniting against the women in the house in a show of force and propelled by substance abuse, the eponymous boys turn their violent intentions outwards, launching a series of events which escalate to a shocking crime.

The newly restored version of the film is playing both the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals on the back of the Federal Government’s Respect campaign, and it is no less urgent than it was on its original release almost 20 years ago. The Respect campaign locates the origins of “extreme violence against women” in Australia in attitudes towards gender difference that begin at childhood in the family home, and identifies “a clear link between violence towards women, and attitudes of disrespect and gender inequality”.

The Boys could not emphasise this point more strongly if it were a government-funded public education campaign. Yet its strength lies in its frankness, its lack of didacticism and its refusal to sensationalise. Instructive and revealing, The Boys is never preachy. Shame is embedded in every frame, corresponding to a silent but omnipresent reality that the Respect campaign now so desperately seeks to articulate: “Not all disrespect towards women results in violence. But all violence against women starts with disrespectful behaviour.”

In its strategic ellipses and non-linear narrative, The Boys shows by not showing, tells by not telling. This movement back and forth across time is more than experimental: it serves to disrupt and disorient. The Boys keeps the bulk of what we intuitively recognise as “extreme violence against women” off-screen, shrewdly building its tension around a sense of dread driven by what feels like an inescapable conclusion. Even without a broader familiarity with the story surrounding Anita Cobby’s death – one that many audiences new to the film will not be aware of – there is no moment in the film of actual suspense, of genuine mystery. We know where this is going, even if we don’t precisely know how. The Boys denies us the quarantined spectacle of a single attack, a single rape, a single murder. There is no cathartic explosion of violence that we might be consoled by thinking will end soon. There is no narrative riddle to solve, no status quo to act as a tantalising potential point of return. There is no OK.

Watching the film in 2016, we know that we’ve been here before, and we’ve heard this story more times than we care to remember. We know how it ends, and it doesn’t end well. As time contorts, the walls draw in towards a conclusion we know is coming, and the women in the film know they can’t escape. Yet the film’s remarkable power lies in its movement towards a moment that never arrives because it’s always arriving, time after time, blow after blow.

The Boys forbids that final spectacle, because it’s the precise unspeakability of gendered violence that the film has been working towards. Despite its central focus on three brothers and other similarities, director Woods has often said the film was never “about” Anita Cobby per se, and he’s right: it’s a film about all the women before her and all the women after. Not just Jill Meagher, but the hundreds of women who don’t make the headlines, documented on Facebook groups like Counting Dead Women. If we see the crime, then it becomes about one woman. As Andrew Frost, the author of an exhaustive 2010 monograph dedicated to the film, noted, the title is a shrewd misdirection: “It isn’t about the boys. It’s about the girls.”

Contemporary figures living out the dynamics drawn in the film are not hard to find. When we realise that the brothers’ way of deflecting criticism from women – no matter how well-intended or harmless – is to objectify them, humiliate them or render them sexually abject, we instantly see the logic that drove Sam Newman when, in June, he defended Eddie McGuire by means of a blustering attack on Caroline Wilson as “an embarrassment”. McGuire, for his part, was clearly confident that his public wish for Wilson to be drowned would be accepted as “harmless banter” because he knows the “boys will be boys” argument has long, deep roots in white Australian folklore. Call it the “Wild Colonial Boys” defense: the longer it goes unhindered, the more insidious it becomes and the more damage it causes. And we let it slide because we always have. Meaning goes unchecked, values blur, women die.

From the opening titles onwards – in which the working-class domestic mise-en-scene is as blurred as the words “The Boys” – we see how language itself becomes so hazy when deployed in discussion surrounding gendered violence that meaning itself starts to drain from it, right before our eyes. More than any government-funded education campaign or the toxic bravado that pollutes tabloid discourse around nebulous clichés like “political correctness gone mad”, The Boys hits home. It is an urgent reminder that when it comes to violence against women – in word or action – there are no excuses. There are only broken people, broken families, and broken lives.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an editor at Senses of Cinema and a film critic on 3RRR.

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