We can feel it in our bones that something terrible is going to happen to the innocent family of kids in Marrowbone, the suspenseful new thriller from The Orphanage screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez. Having not missed a beat since his breakout script a decade ago, Sanchez ratchets up the dread with surgical precision until it’s almost unbearable, while telling a haunting coming-of-age story about first love and family loyalty.
It may sound like a lot to manage but Sanchez, who also serves as director, knows to lean on his immensely-talented cast for support. They help navigate the complicated mix of tones, as much a whirlwind as a teenager’s raw emotions, within a Gothic horror of surprising depth. Set in rural America at the close of the 1960s, Marrowbone follows a destitute family of four siblings forced to live in their mother’s creaky (and creepy) childhood home after she dies. They fled from their abusive father, took their mother’s maiden name of Marrowbone, but with her passing it’s up to eldest son Jack (George MacKay) to watch over them and keep them hidden away in secret. Until he turns 21 and is old enough to inherit the estate and legally watch over his siblings: saintly Jane (Mia Goth), rebellious Billy (Charlie Heaton), and young Sam (Matthew Stagg).
They live a hard life on their own, but they have one another to rely on. And at least for one glorious day they even make a friend who shares their love for adventure, Allie (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy), a local librarian working within the city. Then, a gunshot. A cry for help. And a timejump of six months. When we return to the Marrowbones the house they live in has the shades drawn in, there’s a mysterious stain on the wall, and large sections of the home are simply off-limits. Good luck telling a house full of teenagers and one inquisitive child that they can’t go somewhere.
Danger lurks everywhere in Marrowbone, but the greatest threats are those unseen. Jack’s need to get out and spread his wings attracts him to the city, where he meets Allie for brief romantic encounters. But these excursions also draw the attention of a hotshot lawyer eager to win Allie’s heart and do away with the mystery Marrowbone family. That yearning for adventure also burns within Billy, and there’s a boiling jealousy within him that is going to be trouble. The constant threat of their estranged father returning also looms large, like a tumor just waiting to turn malignant.
Sanchez emphasizes tension over jump scares, setting out a number of dire traps we keep waiting to explode and consume the Marrowbone kids. It’s very much like another of Sanchez’s screenplays, The Impossible (directed by J.A. Bayona just as The Orphanage was), which told a harrowing story of a completely different variety. But the feeling of overcoming tragedy and hardship to be with the ones we love is there, just as it has been in all of Sanchez’s films. Shot by cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, there’s a distinct break between the gloom of the Marrowbones’ captivity, because that’s basically what it is, and Jack’s trysts with the colorful Allie. It’s almost like we’re watching two separate movies, one filled with darkness and paranoia, the other a sunny teen romance about two lovers from opposite sides of the tracks.
The performances are uniformly excellent, which shouldn’t be a surprise. MacKay, probably best known for Captain Fantastic a couple of years ago, impresses as the overwhelmed Jack. And I appreciate that Taylor-Joy wasn’t reduced to just being a symbol of Jack’s aspirations towards freedom, she’s an active participant in the Marrowbones’ salvation or doom. I won’t spoil which. If there’s a problem it’s Sanchez’s weighty setup which takes too long to get going, and an artsy final act that is too clever for its own good. Without giving too much away, Sanchez does a lot of screwing around with timelines and even if everything eventually makes sense there is still a great deal of unnecessary confusion to get through. Despite that, Marrowbone spins an evocative tale of ominous beauty that will appeal to those looking for something different from the typical horror.