'Boy's Life': Home is where the hurt is

April 23, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

All boys' lives are different in details, but all are the same, too, in the larger outline. And the largest outline of all sooner or later belongs to that caricature of horror and terror, that buffoon and bully, that dark, unreachable tyrant, that stupid, uncool moron -- the father figure.

"This Boy's Life," opening today, is a brilliant account of one boy's struggle with the man who controls his life, who happens not to be his blood father but his stepfather. The movie is derived from Tobias Wolff's brief and harrowing memoir of the same name.

In the mid '50s, Wolff and his mother had been more or less abandoned by his natural father and her husband, a colorful, worthless rogue with aristocratic pretentions whose life was later to be chronicled in a book by Wolff's brother Geoffrey, called "The Duke of Deception." The mother and son wandered, ending up in Washington state, where at last she took up with and eventually married a widowed mechanic named Dwight. She and her son moved into his ramshackle rural house just outside of Concrete, Wash. Then all hell broke loose.

It's hard to watch Robert De Niro's brilliant and terrifying performance as Dwight without thinking of the dreadful Vernon Howell, a k a David Koresh. Though Dwight's kingdom was LTC smaller, it seemed ruled by the same nearly atavistic forces. He was one of those sad little men of great delusions who, denied power by the more sensible natural world, became addicted to wielding it within the framework of his squalid little fortress and evolved into a braying, self-aggrandizing, endlessly violent monster.

De Niro gets it brilliantly: Dwight's avuncular, down-homey style, his twerpy, country-boy mannerisms ("You can call me anything you want, just don't call me . . . late for dinner"), his petty vanities and cheap clothes, his intense identification with '50s cultural assumptions of fathers knowing best -- and his secret, desperate fears. He loves to tell boring stories about his triumphs as a rifle shot and fist fighter, and to paint a picture of himself as idealized male -- gruff, tough, masculine, a John Wayne figure. But it's soon clear that these are all delusional fantasies. He's a lousy shot, a coward and sexually dysfunctional.

But he loves to push people around and exert his authority in pathological ways. He simply cannot control his willingness to dominate, while sanctimoniously explaining to his victims that it's for their own good. And he and Toby (Leonardo DiCaprio) are mortal enemies from the start.

Perhaps it's that clearly, before his mother does, he sees through Dwight. Perhaps it's that he represents that most hated thing, the outside world. Perhaps it's that the child is bright and adventurous and longs to do the one thing that Dwight never could: get out. Whatever, it's war.

It begins harshly and accelerates exponentially, from constant hectoring to full-scale violence. In a scene toward the end, Dwight literally beats the young man bloody because he threw out a mustard jar with too much mustard left in it.

But what's best about "This Boy's Life" is that it isn't a self-important victim's song in which an abused child complains about the tragedy of his life. It fairly demonstrates that Toby's own pathologies were a factor -- his sullen rebelliousness, his own sense of superiority that was probably a subtext in his stepfather's anger, and subtle patterns of sexual competition between stepfather and stepson for possession of mother (Ellen Barkin).

The movie manages to depict this horrible phenomenon of "child abuse" in complex artistic terms, rather than the broad brush of victim movies.

Is it a great movie? Yes -- brilliant performances, exquisitely conceived '50s details (none of that phony, those-were-the-days garbage) and quietly insistent but never showy staging by Michael Caton-Jones.

Is it fun? Not for a second.

The threat of violence hangs too heavy in the air and the terrifying child's vulnerability to the one figure in whom he has placed all his trust. Wolff was clearly one of the lucky ones. He got out.


"This Boy's Life"

L Starring Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

*** 1/2

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