The 1960's era gothic thriller Marrowbone (AKA The Secret of Marrowbone), the first feature by writer/director Sergio G. Sánchez, proves how important pacing and subtlety are in any thriller/horror genre, since much of the film's appeal lies in it's even pacing and meticulously timed reveal of important story elements. Not to mention an atmospheric sense of foreboding that persists throughout the film.
Set in 1969, the story follows Rose Marrowbone, a terminally ill British woman and her four children, who, on the run from a mysterious and dangerous past, take refuge in the ancestral Marrowbone country home in rural America. On her deathbed, Rose, desperate that her children remain together, makes her 20 year-old son Jack (George MacKay - 11.22.63, Ghost Stories) promise to keep her passing a secret from the authorities until he turns the age of 21, when he can legally take custody of his younger siblings, 19-year-old Jane (Mia Goth - A Cure for Wellness, Nymphomaniac), 18-year-old Billy (Charlie Heaton - Stranger Things) and 5-year-old Sam (Matthew Stagg). Following Rose's passing, Jack struggles to keep his family's situation a secret from the townsfolk, while simultaneously developing a budding romance with local girl Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy - Split, Thoroughbreds). To further complicate matters, mysterious and ghostly happenings within the old house begin plaguing Jack and his siblings.
Making use of a muted color palette and reserved performances, Sánchez establishes a sense of foreboding that carries throughout the movie. Early on in the film, the family's dark past is only hinted at, and their deep fear comes through the subtle dialogue and performances, with little need for blatant exposition. The film's atmosphere and the disposition of the characters are enough to let us know this isn't a regular move, and that this family is fleeing from something dark. Even during some of the film's more lighthearted moments, such as when Jack and his siblings first encounter Allie, with whom they spend a joyful day at the beach and the five youngsters quickly develop a deep friendship, that sense of foreboding and impending dread never quite leaves us. Something which I believe can be credited to the film's casting, as each of the young actors has their own unique and striking presence, and when all seen together, gives the audience a subtle sense of something being slightly "off".
The plot, the unique cast, and the film's aesthetic all work together to lend it an overall tone that can best be described as a combination of classic Poe-esque Gothic mystery/suspense, and a dark fairy tale, set against the backdrop of late 1960's rural America.
With all that said, there are some criticisms that can easily be applied to this film. While the cast delivers strong performances, and their unconventional features lend a lot of weight to the primary tone of the film, the chemistry between the cast is often inconsistent. During the film's lighter and mundane moments, which are few and far between, the chemistry between them is strong and relatable. However, during the film's more tense moments, that chemistry suddenly feels forced, which risks taking us out of the story at key moments.
One of the film's biggest strengths is its chief plot and the intriguing mystery at the center of it, but a subplot involving a trite love triangle between Jack, Allie, and Porter (Kyle Soller), the small town lawyer responsible for looking after the Marrowbone estate, almost spoils that. Considering how solidly the rest of the plot is handled, this predictable and cliché subplot seems that much hokier as a result.
The score by Fernando Velázquez alternates between being generic and unremarkable to distractingly dated. Granted, the story does have a dated setting, but even so, unlike something like last year's "IT" or "Stranger Things", Sánchez chose not to rely on any sense of old-timey nostalgia, and the film is not executed in such a way that a dated score seems necessary, or even appropriate.
Under other circumstances, these flaws might have been enough to ruin our potential enjoyment of a movie. But with Marrowbone, the notably foreboding tone of the film and the plot's mystery are intriguing enough to keep us invested despite its flaws. The slow, gradual reveal of the family's dark backstory is meticulously timed and handled in a way that feels like an organic progression of events rather than exhibition being spoon fed to us. With enough twists and turns along the way to keep us guessing right up until the film's climax. A climax which is satisfyingly intense and which showcases one particular subject matter with a rare realism and self-awareness rarely displayed in this genre.
In summary, for his first feature, writer/director Sergio G. Sánchez's focus on atmospheric tensions and engaging pacing shows a strong potential for some great thrillers in the future, provided that he learns from his missteps, tightens up his plots, and focuses more energy on developing on-screen chemistry among his cast. All this to say, there is more good than bad to be taken away from Marrowbone.
7 / 10