This Boy’s Life: directed by Michael Caton-Jones
In the tradition of a classic bildungsroman, the autobiographical hero of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a sensitive adolescent, alienated from his repressive provincial surroundings. Stephen Daedalus’ vaulting ambition, his contention with narrow-minded paternal authority figures, identifies him with Icarus. That mythological overreacher ignored his father’s admonition against offending the gods by flying too close to the sun on waxen wings, and tumbled to his death.
The Oedipal dynamic and Icarean metaphor of Stephen’s arduous journey towards autonomy has influenced coming-of- age narratives in American literature and cinema diverse as The Catcher in the Rye, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Graduate, and This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff’s unflinching memoir of his youth in the 1950s. The book was filmed by Michael Caton-Jones in 1993 from a script by Robert Getchell. The latter’s earlier screenplay for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore anticipated Wolff’s compelling history of the not so halcyon days he spent on and off the road with his footloose mother, Caroline.
As the film begins, Caroline’s perennial enthusiasm for hopeless get-rich-quick schemes and fuitless exciting-object relationships is wearing thin. Her plan for a killing in uranium mining has gone bust as her aging jalopy. Her last lover proved an improvident abuser, and her son, twelve year old Tobias, is drifting into sullen delinquency. One speculates that his petty acting out masked a substantive depression, fueled by Caroline’s fragmented lifestyle; his desolation over paternal loss; and his occulted resentment at his brother’s supposedly more favored lot – of which more presently.
The desperate Caroline allows herself to be wooed and won by Dwight, a coarse auto mechanic, who possesses an unnerving buoyancy and an inexhaustible supply of obsessional bromides (“Call me anything, just don’t call me late for dinner!”). Dwight hails from Concrete, a dead-end town in Washington’s Cascade mountains, where grey skies drip endless rain.
Dwight installs mother and son in a ramshackle house, with the three cowed children from his previous failed marriage. Caroline quickly discovers that Dwight’s narrow soul is utterly devoid of tenderness. In their first mating, Dwight repellently takes her from behind, a dumb receptacle of his masturbatory lust The act predicts an unending progression of loveless, soul- grinding days.
Caroline gradually grows aware that she’s exchanged her days of raucous freedom for the rule of a petty tyrant, just sufficiently cognizant of his mediocrity to detest (and fear) excellence in others. But she has become too depleted by the ebb of her fortunes to much oppose his domination. Besides, she knows he can put three squares on the table; and convinces herself that he’ll exert some kind of stabilizing influence upon the unruly Tobias.
Dwight does indeed take his stepson in hard hand, giving Tobias the outward trappings of a sturdy working class boyhood, with a miserly, sadistic spin – endless bootcamp chores; brutal boxing lessons; a profitless paper route (Dwight pockets and secretly spends Tobias’ earnings). .Tobias gradually comes to realize that Dwight’s nasty competitiveness has been sharpened by his recognition that Caroline quietly values her son above him for his intelligence and sensitivity. One recalls the skewed Oedipal configuration of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.
Tobias’ yearning for a father of any stripe; his inherent strength of character; and pure desire to succeed make him endure Dwight’s demeaning tutelage, even tentatively pull himself together. But at base he remains deeply dispirited, performs poorly in school, and continues to hang out with fellow troublemakers.
As Dwight’s children grow up and flee his bondage, his harassment naturally falls more heavily upon Tobias. With the help of a gay boy he bullies, then befriends – the relationship is etched with a special poignancy – Tobias fiddles his high school record, and wins entrance to a classy prep school.
Tobias’ school acceptance follows close on the heels of Caroline’s decision to work for JFK’s presidential campaign, over Dwight’s spiteful objections. He erupts into a jealous fury, and murderously attacks Tobias. Caroline, awakened from her debased passivity, knocks Dwight cold. The pair exultantly quit Dwight’s miserable homestead, and the barren confines of Concrete forever.
Caton-Smith’s cinematic translation of This Boy’s Life is artfully nuanced. His perception of Concrete’s reality is dark, but not condenscending. The town is never made to seem as odious as Dwight’s pathological corner of it. The director’s vision of Tobias and his mother is equally lucid, unsentimental, carefully matching the adult Wolff’s retrospections. Caroline is an appealing character, but the film quietly underscores the psychological burdens her unmoored lifestyle and her casual overstimulation have placed upon her son. Sympathy for the Tobias’ plight is tempered by acknowledgement of his less attractive features; his strong strain of duplicity, his penchant for bullying and self- destructiveness.
Ellen Barkin admirably captures Caroline’s flightiness and sensuality. In his impressive debut, Leonardo – at that time Leonard – DiCaprio conveys the vicissitudes and physical reality of Tobias’ puberty across several stages with impressive accuracy: he seems uncannily to mature as the picture unspools.
Robert DiNiro has played unhinged, dangerous borderline types before with exceptional subtlety. Unfortunately, in This Boy’s Life he continues the gonzo wretched excesses of his Max Cady role in Scorsese’s Cape Fear. DiNiro’s Dwight is all surface, redolent with quirky shtick. Dwight is a contemptible man, but not beyond our pity. DiNiro has inhabited such unlikeable characters with authority and compassionbefore – e.g. in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. But the actor always remains curiously ‘outside’ Dwight’s twisted persona.
The film’s conclusion is not unambivalently upbeat, consonant with its refusal of the convenient Tinseltown pieties of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Caroline, one is told, remarried well. But Tobias’ conflicted Icarean struggles towards the light continued. He dropped out of the prep school he had schemed himself into, fought in Vietnam, then went on to become a writer, and the teller of his boy’s life. .
Ironically, the real father whose absence Tobias grieved so painfully, whose gracious patrician image spurred his longing for escape from Concrete’s mean streets, was actually a charming scam artist. For Tobias’ brother, living with the father was no less tortuous than Tobias’ life with Dwight. The Duke of Deception, Geofrey’s Wolff’s unsparing study of the father, and the cruel impact of his machinations upon the family Tobias never knew, comprises a remarkable companion piece to This Boy’s Life. No one, as Jim Morrison said, gets out of here alive – or at least unwounded.