Marrowbone is a Spanish-English film directed by Sergio G. Sanchez in his feature-length debut. Among his prior credits, Sanchez also wrote the screenplay for the underrated Spanish thriller, The Orphanage. Making its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, Marrowbone saw a theatrical release in Spain in October 2017, before arriving on streaming platforms last week.
A British woman and her children arrive in America at the abandoned Marrowbone estate with the promise of a new life. Following her sudden death, oldest sibling Jack must take of his three younger siblings – Jane, Billie, and Sam. Fearful that the children will be separated, Jack keeps his mother’s death a secret and isolates his siblings from the outside world. But when Jack meets a kindly kindred spirit in Allie and begins introducing her to his world, dark family secrets begin to emerge. One of those dark secrets may be a supernatural force from their past that has found the family again.
An Engaging Puzzle for Audiences
Written and directed by Serigo G. Sanchez, Marrowbone offers audiences an elaborate mystery for its first two-thirds. It’s a very patient film that scatters hints and introduces some early puzzling moments. Viewers will be challenged to piece together hints as the story unfolds and plot points are connected. Like good suspense films, observant audiences will be rewarded in the film’s final act when Sanchez effectively weaves everything together.
A voice-over narration at the start of the film establishes that the “Marrowbones” have escaped hardship. As the film progresses, we slowly learn that someone or something has haunted the children in the past. The children make hushed references to their father. Following all these hints and piecing them together is a big part of what makes Marrowbone engaging.
Early Haunting Atmosphere and Engaging Performances
Marrowbone’s more methodical pace is complimented by a wonderful performances, beautiful cinematography, and a haunting atmosphere. Sanchez’s screenplay emphasizes the relationship between Jack and his younger siblings and outsider Allie. Following their mother’s death, Jack and his sibling join hands over her lifeless body and swear an oath to say together. Much of the film’s drama comes from the struggle Jack faces in balancing his commitment to his siblings with his natural desire to have a relationship with Allie. George MacKay is fantastic in his role as Jack, while Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things), Mia Goth, and Matthew Stagg all offer strong support with their performances. All the actors deliver believable and engaging performances that elicit sympathy.
Cinematographer Xavi Gimenez captures some truly picturesque shots in Marrowbone. These ‘postcard’ shots and Sanchez’s restrained staging of the film’s scares serve to create a sad, haunting atmosphere. The film’s most suspenseful moment emerges when youngest sibling Sam sneaks into his mother’s bedroom and accidentally pulls a blanket off a wardrobe mirror. In this moment Sanchez illustrates the “less is more” approach that works so well for horror.
Marrowbone’s Final Act Can’t Conceal Its More Derivative Elements
It would be unfairly harsh to say that the film’s final act ruins Marrowbone. Perhaps its more fair to say that Marrowbone’s lack of originality comes unraveled at its climax. As the puzzle pieces come together most viewers will recognize several elements of ‘big twist’ from past movies. This problem is exacerbated by Sanchez’s inability to bring together the early atmospheric elements of the film into a truly satisfying climax. Prior restraint and character development isn’t ratcheted up enough to deliver an intense, edge-of-your-seat feeling. As I watched, it just felt like something was missing in the climax.
A Quiet and Meditative Suspense Film
Marrowbone is probably best described as a psychological thriller with horror elements. It never comes close to reaching the heights of other Spanish horror films like The Devil’s Backbone or The Orphanage. Sanchez delivers a quiet, meditative suspense film that in spite of its more derivative elements still offers an engaging early mystery anchored by a strong emotional core. Audiences looking for a conventional jump scares or explicit gore will be disappointed. But if you’re patient and in the mood for a slower suspense-thriller, Marrowbone would make a good option.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B-