The Fragility of Atonement

by Magnus Schifter-Holm. Published 24th of November, 2011.

Adapted from Jonathan Trigell's literary work, and inspired from real life cases, John Crowley's 'Boy A' delivers a drama depicting the turmoil in the life of Jack Burridge (Andrew Garfield), a young man who has just been released from prison, after being convicted of the murder of a young girl when he was just ten years of age. The film follows on the protagonist's attempt at rehabilitated life, and his efforts to outrun his past, with the help of his careworker, and father-figure, Terry (Peter Mullan).

Prior to his release from prison, Jack Burridge was Eric Wilson — the victim of a myriad of unfortunate social circumstances; bullying, a mother dying of cancer, uncaring and indifferent parents, and a school environment within which he did not fit, but most of all, he fell into bad company, namely, the troubled Philip Craig (Taylor Doherty). While Eric is quiet, shy and submissive, Philip is daring, confident, strong, and cool. He is the person who Eric wants to be like and looks up to, but when Philip not only stands up to the bullies tormenting Eric, but beats them off despite them being twice his size, he becomes Eric's idol, following him around, and emulating his attitude, in absence of proper guidance from parents. The sensitive Eric, who was previously offering a cup of tea to his sick mother, despite being beaten up, is now robbing sweets from stores.

Crowley conveys the history of Eric Wilson, now renamed Jack Burridge, following his release from jail, through a series of flashbacks, while he struggles to have an ordinary life. With the help of his father figure Terry, Jack manages well for himself with a job, and soon after, friends, and even a girlfriend. Burridge's sensitive nature comes out strongly; actor Andrew Garfield manages to capture Wilson's awkward feelings when he is treated with love; he is very grateful to all gifts and help received, he helps out his friends in any situation, and when asked what to do in some free time, he says he'd like to visit the grave of his friend. His virtues also come out in the way he treats and respects his new girlfriend, with whom he feels he can be himself and show his vulnerabilities, so much so that he feels terribly dishonest by not telling her about his past. Wilson comes across as an altruist, genuinly looking for a new life, but his troubled past haunts him, in particular, the death of Philip — despite Terry's insistance for him to move on. A high point in Jack's second take on life, was his rescue of a young girl who was trapped in a car following a car crash.

At the same time, there is also the parallel storyline of Terry, Jack's careworker and father figure, who is reunited with his estranged son, who, while resenting his father due to his absence during his childhood, looks forward to the time they have together. However the idealistic rendezvous soon ends for Terry, as his son's unambitious lifestyle worries him, in contrast with Jack, whom he considers to be his greatest achievement, and when one night he let this feeling slip due to his drunken stupor to his son, in a fit of jealous rage, the latter, conscious of his father's delicate work, revealed all of it to society, materialising Terry's and Jack's worst fears. Jack is forced to abandon the life he worked so hard for, issuing a heartbreaking goodbye to his friends, mentor and girlfriend, as the last scenes of the film show him contemplating suicide, despite the letter of hope he receives from the girl he had saved.

Two major themes emerge from this work, the first being the inevitable cycle of violence that is everpresent in humanity, as seen in how Philip, who was serially raped by his brother, developed in becoming a criminal himself, and after the heinious act of killing a young girl, in turn, he too is murdered in prison. Jack, despite being presented as the innocent, Christ-like figure throughout the film, is also not spared the violence, firstly through the bullies, then to the psychological damage inflicted on him by his parents' indifference, and thirdly, through the influence of Philip, and despite his qualities, he ends up in jail, and with people wanting to kill him — he himself becomes well acquainted with being violent, exercising excessive violence over a person who hit his friend, and is known as bruiser amongst his friends. As soon as society learns of his past, the whole town is in uproar, at which point he is forced to run as far away as possible. With his second opportunity at life blown, Jack asks himself the questions as regards the reasoning behind Philip's suicide, and despite having the guarantee of him being a good person, in the thank-you card sent by the young girl he had earlier saved from the car crash, he still seemed to opt for an end to his life, in seeking to follow after Philip. Despite knowing that he had saved the life of a person, and having her gratitude as a ray of hope in his life, the pressure from the burden of his past crime overwhelmed the thought of his beneficial contribution to society.

This particular theme is explored in William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies', where mere children resort to violence, both as a result of trying to survive, as well as the social circumstances — violence fuelling even more violence, leading to tragic death, and waste of life of young individuals, whereby the innocent figures, such as that of Piggy, were sacrificed. Like Jack, Piggy did not fit in society, the former because of his history, while the latter because of his physical drawbacks, both leading to their untimely demise.

In Joel Schumacher's 'Falling Down', a 1993 film, a similar theme is explored, as the protagonist, who is constantly battered by the ill will of the society around him, including being laid off of work, and a divorce, goes about retaliating in increasing tiers of violence, until he comes to a point where he cannot go back, but commits suicide by knowingly drawing a water pistol during a western-style showdown with a policeman, despite the comfort of his daughter's love towards him. His knowledge that he would never be able to live life normally as he did before, makes him decide to stop the painful experience of life. Jack managed to go past his point of no return, by changing his identity, something he was able to do thanks to the guidance of Terry, but after his past is revealed, and Jack confronts his own face plastered all over the walls of the town he was living in, he realised that he could not escape his past.

A similar analysis takes place within F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby', whereby the protagonist comes to the conclusion that he could not live in the future he wanted, because of past experiences, despite his efforts. Similarly, Gatsby ends up dead because of his inability to live in the present society, because of his issues with his own past, and his idealised future. The protagonist failed to come to terms with the facts, and accept them, and move on — the same words Terry told Jack as to why Philip had commited suicide. Ironically, Jack came to that same conclusion, that the events of his past were too much for him to bear with for the rest of his life.

John Crowley's greatest fucking achievement.
— Yours truly

Personally, I found the movie to be very entertaining, with correct pacing and excellent use of flashbacks. Andrew Garfield, who plays Jack, manages to pull off his part very well, capturing the mixed emotions of the kind-hearted, but often confused tragic protagonist, as he seeks to build up at his new life. Director John Crowley does not spoonfeed the audience with all the answers, but rather expects the audience to step in the shoes of the characters, in conveying the reactions of the people towards Jack, and thus creates a very convincing and well executed product, with an emotion-filled dramatic climax and conclusion. All in all, the movie, thanks to an immaculate plot, inspires within the audience the need to ask intrinsic questions about one's life, about being appreciative for what they have, the fragility of life, and the importance of keeping one's experiences in perspective.

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