At points during John Crowley’s second feature, it’s hard to tell from how far inside the head of recently released murderer Jack (Andrew Garfield) we’re watching. Friendships and fears emerge from a fuzzy haze surrounding crisply in-focus Jack as he readjusts admirably after coming of age in prison. Building toward the murder are cutaways to adolescent Jack (Alfie Owen), whose instigating best friend (Taylor Doherty) might just be our protagonist’s externalized id (Brad Pitt to Fight Club’s Ed Norton, if you will).
Delightfully ambiguous mindgames and rapturously exquisite cinematography aside, this is an actor-driven narrative of an endearing shy guy winning over a surrogate father (Peter Mullan), a devoted girlfriend (Katie Lyons) and his co-workers. Jack’s kind-hearted awkwardness invariably charms us too, despite repeated intimations of inescapable tragedy in Crowley and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe’s pessimistic, humanist script. Shortly after one of the most beautiful nightclub scenes ever shot (entire film school syllabi should be devoted to cinematographer Rob Hardy’s virtuoso camera work in this film), a fight breaks out and we worry that when Jack defends one of his new friends he will go too far. Later Jack saves a young girl (of roughly the same age as the girl he killed) from a car accident, and it’s abundantly clear that the line between heroics and horror is particularly thin for our sweet, gentle protagonist.
Thankfully Boy A’s eventual, inevitable spiral isn’t caused by a moral slip-up on Jack’s part, but rather by the invisible pressures of mass media and their consumers. Consciously or not, with this move Crowley earmarks the patriarch of British cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, who several times — most notably in Shadow of a Doubt — invoked the powerful offscreen presence of the popular press. In that film, news of a distant string of murders (the film begins in Philadelphia) slowly but unstoppably reaches the idyllic town of Santa Rosa, where a quaint family is accommodating a mysterious uncle from the East.
Here, relentless tabloid coverage and a web-based vigilante justice group offering money for Jack’s death convince him that he’s nothing more than what he was before jail. In the face of relentless harassment his recent successes become so many more achievements to have stripped away, until Jack finishes worse off than he began. His eventual downfall suggests that personal growth is often unbelievable for a society best moved to action by fear and anger.