Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2018


Missing link

On tight-knit families, ambiguous pasts, and the crucial absence that marks Marrowbone's undoing

Magnet Releasing
Director: Sergio G. Sánchez
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sánchez
Starring: George MacKay, Anya Taylor-Joy, Mia Goth, Charlie Heaton, Kyle Soller, Matthew Stagg, Nicola Harrison and Tom Fisher
Rated R / 1 hour, 50 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

Marrowbone's underlying absence goes fatally unfelt.

It is the very reason why these four siblings have taken on a new family name. It's the reason they've moved into this cavernous new house on this isolated countryside estate. It's the reason sheets cover every mirror on every wall. It's the reason they so cautiously keep themselves out of public view, barely within whispering distance of any local gossipmongers.

And yet there's an empty void rather than a pregnant one. This force - one so powerful it wields control over the Marrowbone children's lives even in absentia - is almost a psychological non-entity in a film that very much relies on its (supposed) lingering power. Instead it's fragmented in a way that prevents it from ever hanging over the characters or the home that practically imprisons them. Marrowbone - written and directed by The Orphanage scribe Sergio G. Sánchez - goes to such unnecessary lengths to remain cagey about who or what is weighing on these kids' minds. Their constant refusal to mention it by name, or acknowledge it in any detail, until well into the film is not for their own benefit - it's for ours.

The approach is counterproductive. And though it may take half the movie before the Marrowbone family begins to divulge its greatest secret out loud, I'm under no such obligation: It's their father. He was monstrous and violent, they crossed continents to escape him, they killed him. Now that wasn't so hard, was it? Our father was a murdering psychopath, we killed him, we changed our names, we began our lives anew. Instead, for reasons I either can't explain or can't defend, Sánchez keeps finding ways to camouflage the very simple fact of the father's existence. We get the "he who must not be named" routine, reinforced by occasional veiled references ("He's gone, he can't hurt us anymore"). There's recurring talk of a ghost lingering around the house - a ghost the film is so cryptic about that it takes several mentions before we even realize it's just another incarnation (imagined or otherwise) of the departed patriarch. We get vague hints about the family's past, teases of a supernatural presence, disorienting cutaways that inevitably get explained later on.

And all in the service of protecting information that needs no such protection. The film's secrecy about its most important (if largely unseen) figure is just so unnecessary. A cheap device to manufacture a nonexistent mystery. The father is no secret to the Marrowbone (née Fairbairn) children - quite the opposite. He dominates their lives still - their memories, dreams, fears, even day-to-day movements. Who he was, what he did to them, how he terrorized them - it's all at the forefront of their very existence, their very identity. Last name notwithstanding. There is, in fairness, specific reference made to the family choosing to forget their past - choosing to give themselves a clean slate. But that's a conspicuously cheap justification for the film's own desire to be as withholding as possible.

Intimately knowing who their father was is, in the film's grand scheme, pretty important information. It gives shape to the family's dread and context to their lives. The details matter. They are the weight behind the irrational fear that his terror is somehow continuing even after death, in the form of curses or visitation or karma or any other form that might rear its head. Even after they've come all this way, moving from England to an out-of-the-way town in America. Everything that matters about the film and its characters is tied up with - defined by - who this man was, and the destruction he wrought, and what ultimately became of him. And yet his supposed potency is reduced to an amorphous blob of unexplored memory.

This is, on the movie's part, perhaps an accidental acknowledgment that it never figured out what made this monster of a man so monstrous in the first place. We eventually - eventually - get some information on who he was, and it turns out he's just a garden-variety psycho. A guy who did a bit of killing, built up a reputation, got his name in the papers. But as far as we can tell from the explanation we get, there's nothing especially out of the ordinary about him, at least not as far as bad guys go. The idea of him as a uniquely malevolent figure never sets in. The film never creates the overwhelming presence that he's meant to be - the presence that terrorized this entire family for years. It repeatedly pushes the father to the back of its mind - periodically brought into consciousness by a bump from the attic or the floorboards, or the sheet mysteriously slipping off the giant mirror in the stairwell - rather than focusing on him as a tangible force to be reckoned with. A greater focus on him as a character would have allowed him to prey on the family psychologically - and thus made the entire case for his intended dramatic weight. Instead, he's, in a strange way, an afterthought.

The one secret that's worth keeping - that must be kept - pushes Marrowbone into resolutely absurd territory that doesn't hold up to the slightest scrutiny (and which exposes the film's crippling lack of psychological perspective). No wonder the film didn't have any time to bring its primary antagonist to life - it was too busy bending over backwards to maneuver its way around plot points that are ultimately meaningless. The most significant one involves a countdown to the 21st birthday of our protagonist Jack (Handsome Rupert Grint George MacKay), at which point he can finally be the legal guardian to his three younger siblings - Jane (A Cure for Wellness' Mia Goth), the temperamental Billy (Stranger Things' Charlie Heaton) and young Sam (Matthew Stagg). Their mother died not long after the family made its way to the States, and the kids are resolute in their intention to stick together - rather than being split up by the authorities in lieu of a parental guardian - even if it means keeping Mom's death a secret for a solid year.

That the only man who might throw a wrench into their plan - a legal liaison for both the deed to the house and the family's name change - is Jack's romantic rival for the affections of local librarian Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an added complication, both for the plot and for the emotional tensions boiling up among the siblings. (They don't all approve of how much time their older brother is spending away from home.) But this whole plotline - the paperwork that has to be signed by a particular deadline, the looming birthday, the conspicuous secrecy - is ultimately a dodge. In action, it's just a flimsy set of obstacles. In retrospect - once all has been revealed - it's an abominable waste of time.

The sheer ridiculousness of what is revealed, and the way its repercussions shake out, might work for a film operating on a much higher, stranger pitch. But Marrowbone is nothing if not earnest, repeatedly grounding itself as a sentimental drama, eschewing any sort of tone that might be able to support the direction it eventually tries to take. This is a measured, regal film with striking locations and outstanding production design; at its best it plays as a warm pseudo-ghost story. But underneath that exterior are much more unusual - even frightening - impulses that the film is simply not prepared to confront.

You can contact Chris at cinebellamy@gmail.com.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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