Friday, April 20, 2018

Classic Movie Review: Duel

Duel (1971) **** / *****
Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Richard Matheson based on his story.
Starring: Dennis Weaver (David Mann), Jacqueline Scott (Mrs. Mann), Eddie Firestone (Cafe Owner), Lou Frizzell (Bus Driver), Gene Dynarski (Man in Café), Lucille Benson (Lady at Snakerama), Tim Herbert (Gas Station Attendant), Charles Seel (Old Man), Shirley O'Hara (Waitress),  Alexander Lockwood (Old Man in Car), Amy Douglass (Old Woman in Car), Dick Whittington (Radio Interviewer), Carey Loftin (The Truck Driver), Dale Van Sickel (Car Driver).
Steven Spielberg’s path to directing movies was different from most of the other great directors of his generation. They all went to film school, and starting making small, personal films for almost no money. Spielberg started directing for television – lots of episode in the late 1960s – and was eventually given the chance to make his debut film with Duel – a made for TV movie from 1971. The film is an exercise in ruthless efficiency – it’s one of Spielberg’s shortest films, but he packs a lot into it. It was clear from the beginning that he had talent – the film played in theaters in Europe almost right away, and would eventually be released in theaters (in a 90 minute, instead of a 73 minute) version once Spielberg was the biggest director in the world. It’s a film that still works like gangbusters.
The plot of Duel is simple – David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is a middle aged, office drone with a wife and kids at home, who has to drive up to see a client who is unhappy with his firm. He’ll mainly be on the backroads, and doesn’t think much of it. Early in the day, he gets stuck behind a giant truck, going slowly – so he will eventually pass him. This sets off, well, a duel, between the two drivers – the truck driver will not leave Mann alone, and chases him up and down the dusty backroads – up mountains, and down, and Mann simply put, cannot get away.
The screenplay was written by the legendary Richard Matheson, based on his own story. His skills are most on display during the one extended sequence that doesn’t take place inside the car with Mann. After the first, really dangerous chase sequence, Mann loses control, and nearly wrecks his car. He stops at a small-town diner to catch his breath and make a phone call. Next thing he knows, the truck – that he thought had taken off – is parked right outside. He looks around the café, and knows – just knows – that one of these men are the one trying to kill him. But he – and we – never see the driver’s face. He only knows his boots. It’s a wonderful sequence of mounting paranoia – we hear Mann’s inner monologue, as he appears more and more crazy. No one inside believes him – he looks like the crazy one.
For the most part though, the movie takes place on the road – just the truck and the car, in a game of cat and mouse. Even in this, his first film, Spielberg shows that he is a genius at action sequences. The ongoing car chase has an excitement that never falters, never waivers. It’s an exercise in skill that not everyone could pull off. How do you essentially make a 90 minute car chase, and keep it exciting?
To be honest, there really isn’t much of say about Duel. It’s an example of what a great director can do when almost everything is stripped away – you cannot say the plot, characters, dialogue in Duel is great, because they aren’t. They don’t need to be. This is a pure exercise in style – and shows just how good Spielberg was, right from the beginning. In three years he’d make his official debut – the fine Sugarland Express, a kind of Bonnie & Clyde knockoff, but a good (and good natured) one – and right after, Jaws and he became the biggest director in the world. Duel though still has a place in Spielberg’s filmography. Few directors could have pulled it off this well.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Movie Review: And Then I Go

And Then I Go *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Vincent Grashaw.
Written by: Brett Haley and Jim Shepard based on the novel by Shepard.
Starring: Arman Darbo (Edwin), Sawyer Barth (Flake), Melanie Lynskey (Janice), Justin Long (Tim), Tony Hale (Mr. Mosley), Carrie Preston (Ms. Arnold), Melonie Diaz (Ms. Meier), Royalty Hightower (Tawanda), Dallas Edwards (Herman), Phebe Cox (Michelle), Kannon Hicks (Gus), Michael Abbott Jr. (Flake's Dad), Hunter Trammell (Matthew Sfikas), Steele Whitney (Dickhead), Conner McVicker (Weensie), Sarah East (Flake's Mom), Jostein Sagnes (Budzinski).
There have been a lot of movies about school shootings in the years since Columbine (I even did a post on all the ones I had seen back in 2009 - and I should probably do an updated version, as there have been a few since then). Vincent Grashaw’s And Then I Go, based on the novel Project X by Jim Shepard (which I include in a post about novels about school shootings ) is slightly different from all of them. The film is about a pair of boys who plan a school shooting, but is much more concentrated on one of the two – the more reluctant of the two of them – to carry out the plot. He seems hesitant, not entirely into the plan, and you get the feeling that at some point, he’s going to put the brakes on things. And yet, at times, he’s also the one who subtly moves things along. The dynamic between the two kids is much like the one between the Columbine shooters – one is more outwardly violent and angry, the other more depressed and self-loathing, and that’s who the film concentrates on. You feel sympathy for him, and that makes the whole movie more complicated than most of its kind.
Edwin (Arman Darbo) is a ninth grader, small for his age, who basically only has one friend in school – Flake (Sawyer Barth). The two are either picked on or ignored by the other kids in school, and while there are some well-meaning adults at the school, Edwin never really opens up to them either. His parents Tim and Janice (Justin Long and Melanie Lynskey) seem nice enough, but of course, like most teenagers, Edwin blocks them out of his inner thoughts as well. The film’s opening scenes show how Edwin and Flake are isolated from the rest of their class – picked on and beat up. Eventually, it will be Flake who brings Edwin down to his basement to show him his dad’s gun collection (I don’t know if the movie designed itself to avoid the gun control debate, by using older weapons, but they do). Together, they start planning just what exactly they are going to do, and how.
The movie isn’t overly interested in that plan however – it shows how the two of them plan, sure, but that’s a small part of the movie. What the film is most interested in is Edwin himself – his isolation and depression that leads him to do what he does – but also how he misses so much that could well have saved him. Edwin and Flake basically isolate themselves from their classmates, they refuse to get involved in anything – even the most basic things like watching TV, or joining social media. Both of Edwin’s parents are caring – and try to talk to him, but he pushes them away, and while they worry about him, it’s hard to see what else they could have done. What’s the difference between a regular sullen teenager, and one that is planning a massacre? While the Vice Principal (Tony Hale) seems mostly clueless, he does try and reach out to Edwin – tries to get him involved, and socialized. And Edwin is a talented artist, who throughout the film will get involved in a group art project that he excels at – and is encouraged by an art teacher, and befriends the other group members. Edwin doesn’t seem to notice any of this however – Flake has been his best friend since they were five, and he seems somewhat lost without him – when the pair get into a fight, Edwin falls deeper into his depression.
The movie clearly wants you to feel sympathy for Edwin – and you do (at least I did, who as a quiet, isolated high school myself, I see some of my teenage self in Edwin). I do think the movie pushes this a little too hard at times (like a scene with an adult, who steals Edwin’s little brothers ball, which just seems weird). The finale of the movie too I think tries too hard to maintain that sympathy for Edwin – not quite make excuses for everything, but show he was no Flake. A harder hitting film would have pushed Edwin a little further, tested our sympathies for him a little more.
Still, the film works as a portrait of Edwin, and the combination of factors that propel him to do what he does. He’s a more complicated character than Flake – who is the kind of angry, young white man who fits the portrait of these kind of mass shooters (particularly the solo ones, and many of them now are solo ones) that we see more and more often. The film doesn’t seek to provide any easy answers or pat psychology – and it’s stronger for that. It shows how a kid may just get to the point that Edwin gets to – and how easy that can be.

Movie Review: Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare ** / ****
Directed by: Jeff Wadlow.
Written by: Jillian Jacobs and Michael Reisz and Christopher Roach and Jeff Wadlow.
Starring: Lucy Hale (Olivia), Tyler Posey (Lucas), Violett Beane (Markie Cameron), Sophia Ali (Penelope), Nolan Gerard Funk (Tyson Curran), Hayden Szeto (Brad), Landon Liboiron (Carter), Sam Lerner (Ronnie), Brady Smith (Roy Cameron), Aurora Perrineau (Giselle), Tom Choi (Officer Han Chang).
Truth or Dare is a rather bland horror movie for the teen crowd that never truly settles on what it wants to be. The premise is essentially a group of college seniors, on one last spring break, get roped into a deadly game of truth or dare – one they cannot stop playing. You lie, you die, you don’t do the dare, you die, you try and stop, you die. There is no realistic way to set up a game like this – but I suppose having it start in a Mexican Church is one way to do it. One by one, the people in the game start dying off, and the survivors have to try and find the way to stop it.
The students involved in the game are really a collection of stereotypes, without much in the way of personality – or more accurately, they are all given one personality trait and play it exclusively. Our heroine is Olivia (Lucy Hale) – the “good girl” of the group, sweet and innocent – she didn’t even want to go on Spring Break with her friends – she wanted to spend the week building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Her best friend is Markie (Violet Beane), and because she’s blond, and her best friend is the brunette good girl, she has to play the party girl. Her boyfriend is Lucas (Tyler Posey), but she cheats on him constantly. Olivia is hiding secret feelings for Lucas – and perhaps he has feelings for her as well. The rest of the characters aren’t even given that much depth – there’s Brad (Hayden Szeto, so good in The Edge of Seventeen) who is openly gay – except with his father. There’s Ronnie Sam Lerner, who in reality would likely be a date rapist, but here is presented as a harmless pest, constantly hitting on every girl around him. Tyson and Penelope (Nolan Gerard Funk and Sophia Ali) spend most of the movie locked in some sort of foreplay – unless she’s drunk or he’s being an asshole.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of the Final Destination films- five films made between 2000 and 2011, in which a group of kids not unlike those in this film, are all supposed to die in some sort of freak accident, and then don’t – but death comes for them one by one, to kill them in interesting, over-the-top ways. In those films, death was inescapable – it was coming for you, before you were supposed to die, and although as the series progressed the deaths became increasingly over-the-top and silly, they were also full of creativity. More of that would have been helpful in Truth or Dare, as the characters essentially follow the same trajectory as those in Final Destination, but for the most part die in rather generic, bloodless ways. If you’re going to make a film with this silly a concept, at least embrace it. The film also spends FAR too much time explaining the rules of the game (and then explaining them again and again – at the sparsely attended show I went to, someone yelled out “We know!” at one point, and it was hard to argue their point). The film also spends too much time trying to get us to care about these characters, and to be honest, we really truly don’t. They are bland archetypes more than real people, and while they are played by an attractive cast, who are mostly game, it’s hard to really care about them.
The ending is probably the films biggest cheat. The thing that worked about the Final Destination films was that, as cruel as they were, it was just death balancing the scales – these people were supposed to die, and didn’t, and know death was coming for what should have already happened. In Truth or Dare the characters are stuck playing a game – but it’s not really a game if there is no way for them to win. Jigsaw may have rigged the games in the Saw movies to make it hard to win – but he always gave you a chance – you follow the rules, you can get out alive. The ending here was designed to shock the audience – give them one last twist. But it felt like a cheat to me.
I will say this for Truth or Dare – it isn’t a boring film. Director Jeff Wadlow keeps it moving along fairly rapidly, and for a while, it’s kind of interesting to try and figure out where all this going. It certainly wanted to be something like Blumhouse’s last wide release – Happy Death Day – and it has the same tone as that film. But that film, with just as silly as a premise as this one, was fun, had a great lead performance, and for the most part, played fair. Truth or Dare has none of that going for it.

Movie Review: Come Sunday

Come Sunday *** / *****
Directed by: Joshua Marston.
Written by: Marcus Hinchey.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Carlton Pearson), Lakeith Stanfield (Reggie), Jason Segel (Henry), Martin Sheen (Oral Roberts), Danny Glover (Quincy Pearson), Condola Rashad (Gina Pearson), Tracey Bonner (Kiesha), Tonea Stewart (Lillie Ruth Pearson), Selena Anduze (Claire), Ric Reitz (Richard Roberts).
I don’t begrudge the people who make Christian movies like the God’s Not Dead series or the recent I Can Only Imagine into “surprise” hits at the box office (seriously, several of these films become hits a year, why are people still surprised). I get the fact that there are Christians in America who don’t feel that Hollywood respects or reflects their beliefs, and want to see entertainment that do. What I often do wonder however is why the people who go see those movies never seem to want to see anything the least bit complicated about Christianity? Why do they want films with easy black and white morality, instead of something more complex? Martin Scorsese’s Silence was one of the most profound religious movies of recent times, and no one went to see it.
Joshua Marston’s Come Sunday isn’t akin to Scorsese’s Silence, but I do think people who take their Christianity seriously should see the film. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Carlton Pearson – who when the film opens is the Bishop at a large Pentecostal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They regularly get 6,000 in the pews on Sundays – and it amazes many that he has as many white parishioners as black, and they worship together in harmony. Slowly though, Carlton starts going through a crisis in his beliefs – not because he questions God’s existence, or his mercy – but because he starts to see things in a new way. It starts when he refuses to write a letter to help get his Uncle Quincy (Danny Glover) paroled, and his Uncle kills himself in prison. It gets worse when he sees news reports about Somalia – and all the children there dying of starvation and other things they have no control of. Carlton doesn’t come to question God in the normal way you would think – he never wonders why God lets horrible things happen to good people. No, instead he starts to believe that God doesn’t condemn people to Hell at all. That Jesus’ sacrifice saved everyone, and everyone will be welcomed into Heaven. That he can support his ideas with scripture (although he admits that some what he says contradicts other stuff in the Bible) doesn’t make his argument go down any easier. He is question what people have been taught forever – and they don’t much like it.

The film is based on an episode of This American Life (who is one of the producers of the film), and to be fair, I think that episode is deeper and more meaningful than the film is. As a radio episode, I don’t think they quite felt the need to package things as neatly as they go in this film, to flesh out other characters around Pearson as much. The film is at its weakest when it feels like they are trying to shoehorn in other characters into Pearson’s crisis of faith. The film doesn’t paint anyone as villains – even those who abandon Pearson do so because of their own deep faith and beliefs. They just truly believe he is wrong.
The reason to see Come Sunday is Ejiofor’s performance as Pearson. He is great at the many preaching scenes in the film – those are the showcase sequences to be sure, and he nails them. But he’s even better at the quieter scenes, when he starts to question his own beliefs – the things he has preached forever, but insists on staying the course, consequences be damned. The film shoehorns this into a rather typical story that in all honesty is kind of bland. In Ejiofor’s performance, you see the great film this could have been. He’s far more interesting that anything that surrounds him.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Movie Review: Lean on Pete

Lean on Pete **** / *****
Directed by: Andrew Haigh.
Written by: Andrew Haigh based on the novel by Willy Vlautin.
Starring: Charlie Plummer (Charley Thompson), Travis Fimmel (Ray), Chloë Sevigny (Bonnie), Steve Buscemi (Del), Steve Zahn (Silver), Amy Seimetz (Lynn), Justin Rain (Mike), Lewis Pullman (Dallas), Frank Gallegos (Santiago), Julia Prud'homme (Ruby), Alison Elliott (Margy), Rachael Perrell Fosket (Martha), Jason Rouse (Mitch), Francisco Diego Garcia (Bob), Bob Olin (Mr. Kendall), Teyah Hartley (Laurie),
I’m not quite sure why it seems like European filmmakers seem more interested in America’s wide open spaces than American directors are – but often when I think of those long stretching roads, and vast emptiness, it’s films like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas or Andrea Arnold’s American Honey that come to mind. American films seems mainly interested in either big cities, the suburbs or small towns – but not everything in between. You can add Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete to those other European films that contemplates that American vastness. It is, on the surface, a story of a boy and a horse – but the film has such a lived in feel that even the smallest characters feel full – that they are leading lives outside the frame, and we are just stopping in.
The film’s star is Charlie Plummer – you may remember him from All the Money in the World last year, although he’s much better here. He plays Charley, a 16 year old kid who has moved around the country with his father, Ray (Travis Fimmel), who moves from one dead end job to the next, one girlfriend to the next. He has no other real family – there’s an Aunt Margy, but she and her father got into a fight a few years ago, and haven’t spoken since. They’re now in Portland, living in a mobile home park, and Charley is left to his own devices a lot. He runs every morning – he wants to play football, like he did at his old school, but he basically knows no one in this new place. He meets Del (Steve Buscemi), a down-on-his-luck, crotchety horse trainer. Charley also meets all of Del’s horses – and grows particularly fond of Lean on Pete – a five-year-old quarter horse, approaching the end of his time as a race horse. Things don’t end well for race horses.
I won’t give away the sad sequence of events that transpire during the first half of Lean on Pete – but will note that the film turns into a road movie of sorts in its second half. Writer/director Andrew Haigh has a gift of making all the characters in this film feel real – like fully formed people the audience is just spending some time with, before they go back to their lives. This makes the episodic nature of Lean on Pete work better than it usually does in this type of film. Whether it’s Travis Fimmel as Charley’s father – who loves his son, but doesn’t really know how to raise him, or Steve Buscemi as Del, a kind of gruff, surrogate father figure who Charley idolizes than grows disillusioned with, Chloe Sevigny as a jockey – who cares for Charley, but is also a realist, the first half of the film allows each of them some time and space for the audience to get to know them. This is more difficult with characters with less screen time – but Haigh and his actors still manage to do it. There is something about the way Amy Seimetz makes breakfast for and interacts with Charley and his father that tells you everything about this woman. Or the couple of Iraq veterans who invite Charley into their house at a certain point – and later, the older man who arrives to hang out with them, with his overweight granddaughter, who he treats cruelly. Or Steve Zahn, who seems so nice as a homeless person at first. All of them are real people, which makes these little interludes along the way ring true.
They all also help Plummer and his performance. Unless Plummer is alone with Lean on Pete, the horse, he remains a fairly quiet presence – respectful and nice, deferring to those around him. As he talks to Pete the horse – and later, a figure from his past – we get to know more about Charley that made him the way he is. His dreams are not big dreams – he has just grown use to grown up either abandoning him or letting him down. There is something almost unspeakably sad about it when he describes to Pete the greatest thing he’s ever seen – and it’s simply a family sitting down to a meal together. The small moments the rest of us take for granted, are all he really wants. When he seems on the verge of getting it, near the end, he distrusts it. He’s been thrust into a crueler world than he should have to face at 16.
When you hear a movie is about a boy and his horse, you are probably thinking of something perhaps a little cheesy, but inspirational. Lean on Pete really isn’t that film – it’s more akin to something like Kelly Reichardt’s best film Wendy & Lucy, in which Michelle Williams plays a woman with no money, stranded with her dog who has to find a way to move on to the next town, for another job. It’s a portrait of poverty that is heartbreaking, because so little money could mean so much to the characters. Lean on Pete gets, I think both darker and more violent than Wendy & Lucy – this is not going to end the way you think it will. It confirms Haigh – whose last film was the brilliant 45 Years, about a woman who realizes late in life that she doesn’t understand anything about her life, or her marriage, as one of the most keenly observant filmmakers around. He sets his sights this time on America – and what he finds is tragic and sad, but offers some hope of uplift.

Movie Review: Rampage

Rampage *** / *****
Directed by: Brad Peyton.
Written by: Ryan Engle and Carlton Cuse & Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel and Ryan Engle.
Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Davis Okoye), Naomie Harris (Dr. Kate Caldwell), Malin Åkerman (Claire Wyden), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Agent Russell), Jake Lacy (Brett Wyden), Joe Manganiello (Burke), Marley Shelton (Dr. Kerry Atkins), P. J. Byrne (Nelson), Demetrius Grosse (Colonel Blake), Jack Quaid (Connor), Breanne Hill (Amy).
It takes a special set of skills to make a movie as gloriously dumb as Rampage undeniably is, but still make it fun. Not everyone can do it right- as the recent Pacific Rim: Uprising proved, which was just as big and dumb as this film is, but isn’t half as much fun. Rampage is a film based on an arcade game which (apparently, I never played it) was nothing except a giant gorilla, a giant wolf and a giant alligator destroying buildings – and the film knows precisely what it is that people who pay to see a movie with that concept want to see – mainly a giant gorilla, giant wolf and a giant alligator destroying buildings. The movie doesn’t really try that hard to have the emotional underpinnings of Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong (it pays it some lip service, but basically doesn’t care), and doesn’t have the larger implications of Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (a film I still love, screw you, you’re wrong about that one). It’s essentially a hundred minutes of smashy-smashy, with enough material with an entirely game cast so you can say that yes, there is in fact a plot here.
And what a gloriously dumb plot is it! Malin Akerman is Claire Wyden, who runs a huge company based in Chicago, who as we see in the opening scene, is conducting genetic editing tests on rats in space, until one of those rats becomes a giant killer rat, and kills almost everyone on board. One lucky scientist manages to get to the escape capsule in time, only to die as she crashes to earth, with three of the samples flying free and hurtling to earth – landing next to (you guessed it) a gorilla, a wolf and an alligator, turning them into monsters. The only one of the three giant animals we care about is George – the Gorilla – who lives at the San Diego Wildlife Centre, under the watch of Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson), a former specialist forces army man, who is also a former head of the UN anti-poaching team, and is now head primatologist. He and George are friends – they speak in sign language, and joke around – so when George starts getting bigger – and angrier – all of a sudden, he is concerned. Eventually, he’ll meet Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), who used to work for Wyden and knows about their research, and Agent Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) – who works for Other Government Agency – to try and figure out what’s going on. For reasons having to do with perhaps the dumbest villain plot ever conceived, all three animals make their way to Chicago – where eventually, they will lay waste to half the city.
Now, not everyone can act in a film like Rampage – and make it work. I’m thinking of someone like Charlize Theron – probably a better actor than anyone in Rampage, but who really seemed out of place in the last Fast & Furious movie, probably because she took it too seriously. That’s not a mistake anyone in Rampage makes. Dwayne Johnson is one of the best actors around for these type of movie star roles, that require nothing more than for him to be charming and funny, and occasionally kick ass – and he does that wonderfully well. Everyone else kind of follows his lead – the more talented than needed Naomie Harris is fine, but you do get the feel that she’s just there to have another woman in the cast. Malin Akerman is having glorious amounts of fun being an evil woman. No one is better than Jeffrey Dean Morgan though, who says every line almost as if he’s about to break out laughing because of how stupid it all is. It’s a skill he perfected on The Walking Dead, where Negan speaks in catch phrases and declarations that are asinine, but at least in this, the film knows that.
But what you really want to see is those three animals destroy things – and once they get started, boy do they ever destroy things. The director is Brad Peyton, who teamed up with Johnson for San Andreas a few years ago, so you already know he’s great at destroying cities (also, he seems oddly fascinated with helicopters). Yes, you could certainly argue that this is another blockbuster that destroys cities, evokes 9/11 with its imagery, but doesn’t seriously consider the human lives lost in the film (they say that half of downtown has been evacuated when they animals start smashing – that still leaves I have no idea how many tens of thousands of people dead). But the film is so goofy, you’re not really thinking about that, are you?
No one could seriously argue that Rampage is a great film – or even a good one. If you watch it and say it’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever seen, well, I’m not sure I could mount much of a defense to that. But the film is glorious amounts of fun.

Movie Review: Marrowbone

Marrowbone ** / *****
Directed by: Sergio G. Sánchez.
Written by: Sergio G. Sánchez.
Starring: George MacKay (Jack), Anya Taylor-Joy (Allie), Charlie Heaton (Billy), Mia Goth (Jane), Matthew Stagg (Sam), Nicola Harrison (Mother), Kyle Soller (Porter), Tom Fisher (Father), Myra Kathryn Pearse (Molly), Paul Jesson (Doctor), Robert Nairne (Monster), Laura Brook (Thelma), Adam Quintero (Mr. Gouldman).
Marrowbone is the directorial debut of Sergio G. Sanchez – the screenwriter probably best known for the 2007 horror film The Orphanage. For some, that film is one of the best horror films of the 21st Century – to me, it was a well-made bore. Part of that is probably because ghost stories don’t much work for me (another of the more highly acclaimed 21st Century horror films The Others doesn’t work for me either) – but mainly I think it’s because it’s one of those movies that withholds information for the sake of surprising you at the end. It’s a kind of storytelling technique I don’t usually like – the film all but tells you it’s not telling you everything, and then pulls to rug out and expects you to be surprised. I find that annoying more than anything – and sadly, Marrowbone is more of the same, with less of the things that made The Orphanage work as well as it did (I would never question either the filmmaking or acting in that film).
It’s the 1960s, and an Irish family – a mother (Nicola Harrison) and her four children, teenagers Jack (George MacKay), Billy (Charlie Heaton), Jane (Mia Goth) and the much younger Sam (Matthew Stagg) have just moved back to America – where the mother grew up. They agree not to talk about the past or “him” – who they don’t name right away, but has to be their father (right?). The family takes on their mother’s maiden name – Marrowbone – and move into the isolated, dilapidated mansion her family has let stand, empty, for three decades. Their mother is very sick, but before she dies, she makes the oldest Jack swear he’ll keep the family together – to do that, they must not let anyone know of her death until he turns 21, and can legally take guardianship of them. Essentially, they are forced to hide away from the world – with Jack occasionally venturing out to the city to do the work that needs to be done, but the rest staying out of sight. In addition to those problems though, something doesn’t seem quite right at the house itself. There are strange noises throughout the house – and all the mirrors are covered. Is the place haunted? Is there a less supernatural, but no less sinister, explanation to be had?
There are perhaps elements to Marrowbone that may have made it work as a routine haunted house film – chief among them is the house itself, which really does have the atmosphere needed for a great haunted house movie, as even in the daytime it is foreboding. But not much else about the film works. It spends way too much time dealing with Porter (Kyle Soller), a young lawyer who is handling some legal work on behalf of the mother – not knowing she is dead – who also happens to know the families secrets, but talks about them almost in riddle until the movie decides to reveal them, AND also is in love with Allie (Anya-Taylor Joy), the closest neighbor to the Marrowbone children, who is in love with Jack. The movie tries to shoehorn those various plot threads in, as well as deal with the haunted house, and sibling resentment, and the siblings having to retrieve the same box of supposedly cursed money more than once.
The result really doesn’t work all that well. The film has too many characters, and to be honest not much is done with any of them aside from Jack. This is particularly frustrating in regards to Taylor-Joy and Goth, who are two actresses I have admired in several films before this, and (to be honest) are the reasons I watched Marrowbone. Both are essentially wasted – especially Goth, who essentially is given nothing to do but hang out in the background so she can be used as a plot reveal later on in the film.
The film tries to have the kind of twist ending that makes audience gasp when it is revealed, but it really isn’t all that shocking. Sanchez doesn’t hint it at necessarily, but the way he’s structured the plot makes no sense at all, unless he needs certain things to be true so he can yank the rug out from under us.
Yes, the atmosphere of Marrowbone is quite good, but other than that, the film is basically a bore – not just because it isn’t scary, but because I think for long stretches of the movie, Sanchez isn’t even trying to be scary – he’s telling too many stories, and none of them are all that interesting.