Horror movies always work best for me when the scares are in service of story, when character and emotion come first and the supernatural or horrific elements work their way into the human side organically, which is what we see in Sergio C. Sánchez’s Marrowbone, a wonderful, terrifying, heartbreaking masterwork that I just happened upon while browsing Shudder. You’d think it would have made a bigger splash with how prolific it’s four principle young cast members are, but it’s just as well that it retains hidden gem status. An English family of four children migrate over to America with their mother, running from a dark past and taking up residence in Marrowbone House, a place once owned by vague family. After the mother passes away the four are left on their own to financially keep the house, look after each other and survive demonic trauma that hovers over all of them them. Oldest brother Jack (George MacKay from Captain Fantastic, How I Live Now and 1917) is the natural leader and caretaker, trying his best to look out for younger siblings Billy (Charlie Heaton of Stranger Things), Sam (Matthew Stagg) and Jane (Mia Goth from Suspiria and A Cure For Wellness). They basically have no one in the world now except their friend local librarian Allie (Anya Taylor Joy, The VVitch, Split), who soon falls deeply in love with Jack and has a desire to help him and his family through dark times. Soon they hear eerie noises from the attic and a suspiciously sentient full length mirror draws attention in inexplicable ways as the ghosts of their past rise up to haunt them and memories once long buried begin to surface. I don’t want to say too much because this is such a fun puzzle box of a story to unravel and includes some twists that are tough to see coming (pay attention to the poster, where a big clue hides in plain sight). It’s a sad, forlorn tale about children growing up far quicker than they should have to, familial trauma and violence leaking over into the next generation and the ripple effect that evil and malcontent in a family can have. There’s wonderful romance that is sold effectively by MacKay and Joy, who are both superb, as are Heaton and Goth in roles that are secondary but no less deeply felt and acted. The scares are genuinely, bone chillingly fucking terrifying stuff, and the fact that restraint and subtlety is used make them all the more effective. Seriously, there are a few squirm out of your skin, shudder down your spine moments that push the creep factor past eleven on the dial, which isn’t easy to do. What makes the film work so well for me is that it cares deeply for these kids, their situation and makes each character stand out in their uniqueness, thanks to strong acting work, writing and music. It has a slight gothic feel, and I almost got like a ‘horror version of Narnia’ fantasy feel from these characters and their plight, but that could have just been me. Brilliantly written and directed by Sánchez (his freaking feature debut I might add), vividly and emotionally acted, it’s just a beautiful and frightening story worth immersing yourself in and one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long time. 10/10.
It still amazes me that Kevin McDonald’s How I Live Now didn’t endure to become a more widely known or appreciated film, because it’s one of my favourites and in my mind one of the strongest, most affecting pieces of work in recent decades. I guess it kind of comes across as this Young Adult Book adaptation if you check out the cover and trailer but the film therein is extremely honest, disarmingly disturbing and very, very brutally frank about how widespread disaster may hit any region and those who live within it. It’s not without poetry, authentic romance, beauty or hope though and there’s this beautiful, life affirming balance between light and dark that makes for the perfect mixture.
The always exceptional Saoirse Ronan stars as Daisy, an American girl who suffers from severe anxiety and feelings of alienation, sent overseas to rural UK to live with an aunt and a whole pile of cousins she’s never even met. Slowly, bit by bit she comes out of her shell and warms up to this family, especially local boy Eddie (George MacKay) who she begins to fall in love with. Gradually the place she’s in and the people she’s with start to feel like home… until something unspeakable happens. Hundreds of miles away in London, a nuclear bomb goes off, cataclysm sets in and oppressive foreign forces slowly invade across the land. Her Aunt is gone doing humanitarian crisis work and so herself and Eddie, the closest thing the family has to leaders, must embark on a cross country odyssey fraught with dread, misery, peril and bleakness everywhere they turn.
This film hits me hard because of how real the danger and horrific aspects feel, how potent and believable the acting and relationships are and how brisk yet dense, heavy yet wistful and dark yet light the story ultimately feels. This is not a children’s film and it is most definitely *not* one geared solely towards teenagers either, there’s scenes of abject horror (it’s got an R rating that it more than earns), children thrown into impossibly complex and harrowing situations beyond their comprehension and is steeped in the harsh reality that in life things can go horribly wrong and if you find something anywhere near a happy ending you’re incredibly lucky rather than owed one by a pandering narrative. Ronan and MacKay are incredibly heartfelt and genuine, their romance and resilience anchoring the whole family as well as the film. Few films with children and young adults in the forefront have the bravery and honesty to show that the world can be just as harsh to them as to any adult protagonist, and show in the same token how said youngsters can have a tremendous amount of survivalism, intuition, spirit and courage to overcome adversity and do the best in an unforgiving world. This film is light and dark to me; the womb-like, sun dappled meadows and rivers of the English countryside where these children play and begin to grow up and then the blackened, nuclear poisoned land they venture out into and must find their way back to the light from. Light and dark. The blossoming romance between Daisy and Eddie, a force of great light in the face of encroaching evil and callous destruction approaching them, and the decision to use that love as a weapon in order to get them through, no matter how it might change either of them. In this film, the light wins and I watch it whenever I need a reminder of that. Masterpiece.
Somewhere deep in the rugged mountainsides of the Pacific Northwest, a mother and father have chosen to raise their five children off the grid, away from society and by a completely different set of rules and customs than anyone in our day and age is used to. Viggo Mortensen doesn’t take on just any film, and in fact since his breakout role in Lord of The Rings which allowed him some clout, he’s done nothing but carefully thought out, worthwhile cinema, Captain Fantastic being probably one of the best. He is intense and caring as Ben, an intellectual renaissance man who has been bitterly put off of capitalism and commercialism. His wife (Trin Miller, angelic in flashbacks) is mentally ill and eventually passes away, leaving him on his own with the brood. He does what he knows best, sticking to the rigid physical and intellectual education plan in place for them. They learn to hunt wild game with homemade tools, read from classics like Lolita and Brothers Karamazov every evening, grow all their own grains and vegetation, practice complex defense, combat and survival skills, and live a life of elemental potency, far from the lemming’s march of consumerism just beyond their verdant and very isolated homeland. Trouble has a way of finding paradise though, however well it hides, and here it arrives in the simplest form of all: the absence of a mother. Things aren’t the same following her death, and they all take up arms and head south to New Mexico for her funeral, in a big old repurpoused school bus. They’re the most ecentric family you’ve ever met, and the ironic part is they’re the closest thing to what we were meant to live like in this world you’ll find. The real absurdity is the technicolor strip mall fast food fever dream we inhabit today, far removed from our earthy origins. It’s just because it’s become so commonplace that it seems normal to us. The family clashes spectacularly with an unprepared outside world who react to their behaviour in many different ways. The children all have the physique of a professional athlete and the academic abilities of six college professors, but somewhere along the way Ben forgot to teach them about what matters most: How to interact with one another, how to care for and love another human, and the simple social cues one aquires from growing up around a large number of people. His jaded father in law (knockout work from Frank Langella) sees Ben as a loose cannon, a danger to his grandchildren and the cause of his daughter’s death. At one point the film levels out and let’s us see things in a complete objective way: yes there are extreme benefits to a method of raising children like this, an experience that no one else could have and an implementation of their human potential that goes several degrees farther than usual. But how far is too far? Is there a dangerous element to their training and conditioning that goes beyond what they’re capable of and poses a threat? Mortensen is a picture of conflict, his undying love for his children tested when he’s thrown out of the comfort coccoon he has forged for them. Suddenly he is not the all knowing protector they’ve gotten used to, and the world outside is just as much a cause of fear for him as it is for them. They are a family though, which is achingly, evidently clear in each performance. George Mackay is the eldest and bears the brunt of realization when it comes time to meet other people. The others, including Annaliese Basso, Shree Crooks, Nicholas Hamilton and Samantha Isler are all sensational and have a lived in, well worn and often quite hilarious dynamic. It’s essentially a fish out of water story that begs us to question both the water and the land, and how going from one environment to the other, both worlds apart but in the same realm, can affect a human being. This is the best film I have seen so far this year, one that challenges us to ponder what we see unfold, urges us to be more than just another fish in the school, but to laugh, be crazy, think for ourselves and pitch in an effort to find the scattered pieces of the puzzle we call the human condition. Fantastic is the word indeed.