To compare Marrowbone to other films would be to give away its twisted final act. If it were the first of its kind, it would be critically lauded for contorting your psyche and leaving you sick in the stomach. But it isn’t novel because predecessors have melded fantasy and reality together for a potent concoction before.
We start off with a family, the Marrowbones, moving across the Atlantic to arrive in late 60s America, a family led by a single mother intent on protecting her litter from the past. She declares that history is precisely that, and whatever horrors the family faced are behind them, but she doesn’t seem convincing, to the kids and to herself. She makes a symbolic gesture of encouraging the children to cross a line in her old childhood home, after which point they’ll all be part of a new chapter. A line of dust and debris formed by years of inoccupation at the house.
But when she gets ill and passes away, the children are forced to live in isolation until the eldest, Jack, (George Mackay) comes of age so that the rest, Billy (Charlie Heaton), Jane (Mia Goth), and the little Sam (Matthew Stagg), won’t be separated by the authorities. Their promise to stay warded off is tested by Jack’s growing relationship to a local, Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a librarian with an irresistibly kind manner, and Tom Porter, an inquisitive lawyer suspicious of the Marrowbone past and recent arrival. Secrets test the relationships within the family, Jack’s connection to Allie, and also the prying eye of Tom Porter.
Marrowbone haunts the mind on two fronts, and one is by tackling the past and our conflicted relationship with it. Do we forget it? Run from it? Or embrace it? The mother seemed to think the second option was the best, and justifiably so as she took the kids away from their father, described early on as a monster of the worst sort.
But the progression of the movie does all it can to undermine this decision. When the mother dies, the children are forced to use their father’s blood money to secure their ownership of the house, and this decision coincides with mysterious occurrences in the house. Sights and sounds that befuddle the mind, hinting at a supernatural presence, tied in some way to their father and their shared past. The past holds on, lingers, haunts and torments them. Is there any running away from a monster, his actual physical being or evil spirit?
History clings on to the children, exposing itself in the physical world and the supernatural, deep within the corners and recesses of their minds. It’s a terrible form of solitary confinement, with the kids trapped in their house while only Jack ventures out to the nearby town for goods and services. There’s no adult guidance or supervision, no protective arm around the shoulder to keep them safe. The mind goes to dark places in the absence of company.
Fantasy and Reality
The initial threat is presented as a ghost, one that’s disturbing them ever since the death of their mother and an unnamed, partially unseen incident in the beginning. The mysterious forces appear to present and channel the family’s grief. Grief follows each member like a shadow, forcing them to confront it in different ways. Jack, as the grownup, buries his head in duty and responsibility, making sure the wellbeing of his siblings is of paramount importance. Jane finds comfort in caring for the young Sam, homeschooling him since an actual education isn’t an option until Jack’s an adult. Billy throws himself into the outdoors, working the garden and yard, directing his anger into the external world. Sam lives as much as a young boy trapped in a house can, but it’s he who wholeheartedly buys into the prospect of the supernatural living among them.
There’s a search for a reason to the present grief and anguish. The family looks for it in what they see, hear, and touch, attempting to cope with their common tragedy in different ways. Identifying it as a ghost is one way to go about it, but there are four people and four different interpretations of reality and fantasy. What’s real and what’s not? That’s part of the fun in Marrowbone, especially in the tantalizing final act.
Most of Marrowbone’s substance is within its strong acting performances. The four siblings played by Mackay, Goth, Heaton, and Stagg display genuine care and affection for one another, and the varying degrees of understanding evident by age and circumstance are present to see. Jack, the dutiful leader. Billy the impatient younger brother keen to prove himself. Jane the younger sister and adoptive mother, replacing the position of the one they just lost. And Sam, the unbridled piece of joy unique to them all. Not to forget Anya Taylor-Joy, whose recent streak of roles showcases her ever-reliable acting chops, this time as the effervescent love interest who becomes the designated savior in the nth hour.
Marrowbone develops in unexpected ways, becoming a suspenseful horror film that defies convention and focuses more on the tortures of the mind. The villain of the story is and isn’t in plain sight, so our hero’s objective morphs as we dig deeper into the tale. That journey in itself, a meandering one for sure, was quite welcome for me, and hopefully will be