A little boy stands on a staircase landing, staring at a covered mirror. As far as we can tell, it’s just a plain old broken mirror, but the boy’s look of horror and the sound of high-pitched strings raise the tension. The boy’s siblings call from another room, playfully urging him to rejoin them in their board game. But first, he must retrieve the die that fell down the stairs and now sits in front of the mirror.
Screenwriter of the excellent 2007 horror film The Orphanage, writer/director Sergio G. Sánchez knows how to construct the perfect scary scene: the audience doesn’t understand what the threat is, but we know how where it is, how dangerous it is, and where the potential victim must go for safety. Sánchez makes clear all the stakes and motivations, fully investing us in the moment.
It’s a shame, then, that Sánchez builds his directorial debut Marrowbone not around such well-crafted scares, but around a Shyamalan-esque twist. Not a good Shyamalan twist, like in The Sixth Sense — one that refigures an already coherent and satisfying story — but the type of twist imagined by a virulent M. Night Slanderer. Sanchez mangles Marrowbone‘s narrative in the service of a twist made necessary by the arbitrary bends and holes he pounded into it.
That’s a horrible thing to do to such a simple and compelling plot: four orphaned siblings — responsible eldest brother Jack (George MacKay), feisty younger brother Billy (Stranger Things‘s Charlie Heaton), maternal sister Jane (Mia Goth), and baby brother Sam (Matthew Stagg) — live alone in a decrepit house, bound together by their love for one another and their shared guilt over terrible measures they took against their monstrous father. The Orphanage, and other Guillermo Del Toro related films, know how secrets breed hauntings, and Marrowbone is at its best when the father’s memory terrorizes the children.
But it’s at its worst when layering upon that story or moving it along with arbitrary incidents. Many of the latter involve Kyle Soller as a nosey bank employee and an absolutely wasted Anya Taylor-Joy as a family friend, and neither character rises above plot functionary. They appear when the story needs them to do something, and they disappear when it’s done with them, with no sense of internal motivation.
None of which is the actors’ fault. Despite their underdeveloped characters, all the actors bring something memorable and humanizing to the performances, and every member of the cast has an expressive face. In fact, the entire movie, shot by Xavi Giménez , is gorgeous to look at. Whether moving the camera slowly down a cobwebbed hallway or capturing the gold and green of an idyllic landscape, Giménez fills the screen with sumptuous images.
One can almost stop listening and enjoy the view, waiting for then next eerie set-piece. But the film refuses to follow even the simplest narrative line, constantly interrupting and obscuring its own story.
A good movie haunts Marrowbone, floating along the periphery of a well-composed shot or an effective scare; but it only appears in fleeting glimpses before dissipating above the battered corpse of the movie we actually have.