This Boy’s Life, 2011.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones.
Starring Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, Jonah Blechman, Eliza Dushku, Chris Cooper, Carla Gugino and Tobey Maguire.
Desperate to make a decent life for her and her son, a divorced mother takes up residence with a bullying tyrant who is determined to make the boy’s life as painful and difficult as possible.
Based on the biography of the same title, This Boy’s Life details the coming of age of its writer Tobias Wolff against the backdrop of searching for the American dream in the late 1950s. This was a time where people thought they could make money from finding Uranium on the streets of Utah and make a living from it. As Wolff’s life shows, this was rarely the case.
Yet this is exactly where the film begins, with 13 year old Wolff (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his mother (Ellen Barkin) driving their Nash sedan through the stunning scenery on the way to Utah with no other plans than to find said Uranium. The pair sing along to Frank Sinatra’s ‘Let’s Get Away From It All’ and the stage is set for the dream to end before it’s even begun. There is no getting away, only moving from one broken dream to another as idealism and reality collide. The idealist mother soon meets Dwight (Robert De Niro), a tough disciplinarian whose view of reality is to crush the hopes and dreams of all around him. We never really understand why he is like he is, but perhaps the young boy never knew; it is clear Dwight resented his own failings in life and couldn’t bear to see other succeed. To him, being a man consisted of joining the Scouts, doing a 3 hour paper round, and always winning a fight.
Wolff’s story doesn’t pretend to portray him as an angel and we never have cause to feel especially sorry for him, except when Dwight gets physically violent. Wolff represents the post war American attitude of rebellion and rock ‘n’ roll, with his Elvis hairstyle and smart mouth. Dwight is the exact opposite, a man who would have grown up in a much less privileged era and, we assume, fought in the war. The film is a microcosm of the period, yet there remains hope and a happy ending for those who want to break away from the Dwight’s of this world – because they remain in the present day, too. This is what makes This Boy’s Life a success beyond its film making achievements; it is a story which can be adapted to any time; all you need is one chance to turn your life around.
The performances are stellar throughout. Back in 1993 Robert De Niro wasn’t just one of the greatest and most dependable actors, he was also making great films too; This Boy’s Life shows a De Niro who still cared about the films he was making and could turn in those characters whom no one else could play. With De Niro playing Dwight, we have a man who is always on the edge from the first time we meet him – too eager to impress with his cigarette lighter tricks and fake air kisses, we know this isn’t the real Dwight and it will just be a matter of time until the true character come out. De Niro brought a physical intensity to the screen in the 1990’s that no other actor had; think of his menace in films like Goodfellas, Heat, The Fan, Casino, Copland and now add This Boy’s Life to the list. Watching him here is a reminder of the actor who, whilst not necessarily making his greatest work (save for Goodfellas, Casino, and Heat), certainly wasn’t making the rubbish he is today.
Anyone playing alongside De Niro needs to be on the top of their game to not get eaten up by his screen presence, and the casting of Wolff had to perfect in order for the film to be a compelling story. In a pre-Titanic role, Leonardo DiCaprio steals the show from even the great Bobby De Niro with a performance of such maturity and intelligence, beyond even his, at the time, 19 years of age. Watching the film at the time of release, people must have seen a future A-list star in the making. It is easy to see now how Di Caprio now can command the screen with the presence that he does in film like The Aviator and The Departed when he started off by putting in performances like this one.
Director Michael Canton-Jones captures the era expertly well as he did with Memphis Belle four years earlier and made a very watchable and enjoyable film from a source material full of violence and crushing despair. It’s a shame Canton-Jones would go on to make the terrible remake The Jackal and the unspeakably bad Basic Instinct 2.
VERDICT: 8 OUT OF 10 – Watch this to remind yourself of a great De Niro and see the beginnings of an excellent DiCaprio.