Heartbreaking and harrowing, Boy A proves that Irish stage director John Crowley's first film - 2004's Intermission - wasn't a fluke. A chamber piece in the truest sense of the word, Boy A depicts the complicated relationship that develops between 24-year-old ex-con Jack (Andrew Garfield) and his middle-aged caseworker Terry (the excellent Peter Mullan) after being released from prison. Crowley's oblique storytelling approach (he doesn't tell us the exact nature of Jack's crime until late in the movie) reaps huge dividends by amping up the suspense. By the time we learn the grisly circumstances that sent Jack away for 14 long years, we've become so emotionally invested in his rehabilitation - thanks in large measure to Garfield and Mullan's extraordinarily empathetic performances - that it almost doesn't matter.
Set in the grimly forlorn northern industrial town of Manchester, England, Crowley makes the city as much of a protagonist in the drama as Terry or Jack. The hopelessness and despair that's a part of everyday life in this economically strapped burg is reflected in the faces of its shell-shocked denizens and sepulchral brick buildings. Yet despite this overarching sadness, Boy A has poetic, lyrical passages that belie the sometimes-oppressive gloom. It's impossible not to cheer for Jack when he lands a job at a delivery company or shyly asks his clearly interested coworker Michelle (Katie Lyons) out on a date. Terry remains Jack's biggest support system, and the paternal bond that develops between them is the film's brightest, most touching element. (Coincidentally, the divorced Jack is estranged from his own biological son.)
Based on a novel by Jonathan Trigell, Boy A is framed as an exegesis on the very nature of crime, punishment and forgiveness. Is it possible to absolve an unforgivable act? And can a conscience-stricken murderer like Jack ever truly move on and live a normal life?