In the 2002 documentary Derrida, the famed French deconstructionist philosopher posited that pure forgiveness is an impossibility. Speaking about truth and reconciliation in South Africa in the wake of apartheid, Derrida said, "One can only truly forgive that which is unforgivable. If one forgives what is easily forgiven, one doesn't really forgive. One must forgive what is unforgivable and so do the impossible." Forgiveness, for Derrida, required work, and he rejected the notion of cultural forgiveness altogether -- if true forgiveness is possible, it can only happen on an individual level, extended from one human being to another.
Boy A, the haunting new film from director John Crowley, is a cinematic vindication of Derrida's ruminations. The film is a meditation on how a person's past can overwhelm his present. It is also a commentary on humanity's penchant for vengeance and the impossibility of societal forgiveness. A stark, uncompromising social-realist film that at times feels more like documentary than fiction, Boy A still provides nearly as much hope as despair. There are moments of utter beauty in the film that most American indie films lack, but it is the beauty of forgetfulness, of eradication of the past -- a beauty that is inherently unstable.
The film revolves around Jack's (Andrew Garfield) attempt to reinvent himself. Released at the age of 24 after spending 14 years in prison for his participation in a horrific crime, Jack attempts to reintegrate into the society of Manchester, England. But society has neither forgotten nor forgiven him. Jack's caseworker Terry (Peter Mullan) believes that Jack has atoned for the sins of his youth and forces him to adopt a new identity. Terry finds him an apartment but warns Jack that he can never tell anyone about who he was.
For a while, at least, Jack successfully fits in. He gets a job as a deliveryman, begins to make friends, even falls in love; in short, he's able to play the part of a normal man. But his new life is predicated on the suppression of his old one. Unfortunately for Jack, through a series of events out of his control, his real identity is revealed and he loses ownership of his life as his entire existence becomes the property of a vindictive community.
Crowley reveals Jack's past in tightly-honed flashbacks that deftly avoid sentimentalism. We’re clearly intended to sympathize with him, but Crowley doesn’t sugarcoat the character’s past. It's Jack’s undeniable guilt that makes the film so poignant. Crowley forces us to examine our own beliefs about punishment. Is the man liable for the crimes of the boy? And if so, is there anything the man can ever do to achieve atonement, or is he condemned to suffer for a lifetime?
The actors' performances in and of themselves make Boy A worth seeing. The movie largely rests on the abilities of newcomer Garfield, who, through a mixture of nervousness, naiveté, and modesty, manages to dominate every second he’s on screen. Garfield's subtle, probing portrayal of Jack is fascinating, partly because he has the rare ability to convey inner turmoil through simple gestures and voice inflections. Because of Garfield, we can see the boy in the man, even as we recognize the disjunction between Jack’s past and present selves. Equally compelling are the performances of Mullan and Katie Lyons. The latter plays Jack’s stout and infectiously sassy love interest, Michelle. Mullan and Lyons enable us to at least partially believe in Jack’s redemption, even though we never fully buy into the hope. The film hearkens back to Greek tragedy, as we foresee the disastrous end long before it arrives.
Boy A only feels a bit contrived at its conclusion. But this whiff of over-determinism is excusable because of the paradoxical nature of Jack's life. To survive, he had to make his present a complete lie. This duplicity, however essential, also corrodes the relationships he builds in his new life. When his identity is exposed, his betrayal causes friends to abandon him. Really, there was no one Jack could ever be. Boy A suggests that we can never separate ourselves from who we were. It also adds a forlorn addendum to Derrida’s reflections – we may find that there is nothing more impossible than forgiving ourselves.