After writing The Orphanage, and The Impossible, (both directed by J.A. Bayona), Sergio G. Sánchez makes his directorial debut with 2017’s psychological horror piece, Marrowbone. The film stars George MacKay, (Captain Fantastic, How I Live Now), along with Anna Taylor-Joy (Split, The VVitch, Morgan), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things), Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness) and Kyle Soller (Poldark). This period piece ultimately reveals that it takes place during 1969, but begins with a much earlier feel. It begins with a British family being brought by their American mother to her abandoned childhood home, “It is not like I remembered,” resonates in more ways than one. The house is dilapidated, empty and eerie, the perfect setting for a slow-burn ghost story. Leaving England to escape (at what is hinted at as an abusive father), their mother tells them that they will start over and forget all that has happened before. From now on, they will take on her maiden name, Marrowbone, and stick together, no matter what.
The family consists of oldest son Jack, (MacKay), daughter Jane, (Goth), brother Billy, (Heaton), and youngest son, Sam (played by Matthew Stagg). We are also introduced early on to their neighbor and new friend, Allie (Taylor-Joy), during that initial happy and peaceful summer before things take a turn for the worse. Allie photographs the siblings after an epic day by the sea, and it is the last time we see the group truly happy together. Shortly afterwards, the Marrowbones lose their mother to illness and bury her on their property to avoid going to the orphanage. Jack has promised his mother that they will lay low and avoid others until he turns 21 and can become their legal guardian. “We are one,” they repeat, after Jack makes them promise not to reveal their mother’s death and to stick together. Their mother also reveals a small metal case, once belonging to Jack’s father, which they thought she had left behind. This lie, and the resulting isolation felt by their mother’s death, takes a toll on the Marrowbone children. We see them trying their best to live a happy life, until one day a figure out of the woods shoots a bullet through their mother’s window, and the film skips ahead six months.
The Marrowbone children do their best to live in hiding. Jane becomes the surrogate mother, homeschooling the youngest brother, Sam. Billy, wearing overalls and carrying a gun, hunts and paces testily, a teenager in a cage, while Jack, the only one who leaves the property, enters town for groceries and to occasionally steal kisses from Allie, who works at the local library. It is this first visit to town that reveals a television showing the first moon landing, the clothing and other small details of the Marrowbone’s neighbors, including Porter (Kyle Soller) who both fancies Allie for himself, and is put off by the strange quiet behavior of Jack and his family. The fear of the Marrowbone’s returning father, along with the building dread of the other townsfolk finding out about their mother’s death may be the scariest part of the film. Six months after the gunman appeared, Jack appears rattled, with a large healing gash on his forehead, as he avoids outside contact until a scheduled visit by Porter approaches to finalize his mother’s inheritance of the Marrowbone home. Allie, both sensitive and well read, seems a tad out of place in the small anonymous Maine town, enough so that Porter tries to persuade her to join him when he is offered a new job in New York City. But her heart already belongs to Jack, despite his secretive nature and hesitance for her to come back and visit his siblings until after he turns 21. Allie probes Jack for more details about his life and family, but she is shut out when she asks about his father, whom Jack only describes as a “monster.”
Back home, the Marrowbone children are frantic about what to do to satisfy the approaching Porter. They need a bank check and a document signed by their (now dead) mother. Again, the suspense of whether they will be discovered is often scarier than any other potential villains thus far. There is a strange stain soaking through the ceiling from the attic that Jack paints over before Porter arrives, and Jane practices her mother’s signature over and over, while the children discuss where to get the money. The metal case from their father becomes a point of contention. Billy and Jack agree it is the only way to save them, while Jane, the moral compass of the group, believes that anything from their father can only bring bad luck. Jack reclaims the case, hidden out amongst the rocks by the beach. Once opened, it is filled with British pounds, and some other stolen belongings. They take the money and Billy brings the box and its remaining contents up to the roof and drops it down the chimney. Jane believes the money is cursed – much like the monkey’s paw in the short story by W. W. Jacobs – it will only bring them despair. Although suspicious and displeased with his visit to the Marrowbone estate, Porter takes the money and the forged documents signed by Jane. While snooping around, he sees that a door leading upstairs has been bricked off. After this visit, the children hope that all will be well, but we, the audience, know it most certainly will not be.
Sam, the youngest of the group, becomes our chorus. He serves as a way to show the viewer the fear of childhood in a creaky old house, and as a way for us to both draw conclusions and ask further questions about what the heck is going on. Afraid of the “ghost” that inhabits their house, Sam asks Jack to cover all the mirrors or hide them from view. His fear is part childish imagination, part the hairs on the back of your neck standing up when you know something is wrong. Sam wishes to visit his mother’s room now that she is dead, but Jack will not allow it. When most frightened, the entire group of Marrowbone children run and hide inside their “fortress” – a homemade bunker of blankets and pillows complete with a record player playing The Beach Boys. Here they feel safe. The children are frustrated and scared in hiding but they carry on. They play games, feed stray raccoons, pick berries and even communicate with neighbor Allie via Morse code, using lanterns from their windows. But the eerie presence of something lurks inside the house. The moans heard from upstairs, the stain coming through the ceiling, the bricked up door leading to the attic, we know something else is going on.
Sam’s “ghost” is actually the man who shot at the Marrowbone house six months ago. Little by little we learn through hints and whispers that it may be the Marrowbone children’s father. But is it? Are they just scared of being found out? Jack tells Allie that their father is dead, but is he, really? Is the ghost just their fear of an abusive father returning, or is there more to it? Porter, still suspicious, has seen the door to the room that is entirely bricked shut. Angry after Allie rejects his offer to go to New York, he taunts her with secrets about Jack and his family. She learns through files of newspaper clippings that their father was a convicted murderer in England whom Jack testified against in court. He has escaped, and the whereabouts of both father and family are currently unknown. In yet another subplot (that in my opinion is not needed), Porter is put in a position where he may lose his one ticket out of this small town if he is not able to buy his way into a new position as a partner at the New York firm he plans to join. He blackmails Jack, telling him he wants money or else. He knows that the papers were forged and assumes something happened to their mother. They need the cursed money again to save their secret. But how can they get at it now that Billy has dropped it down the chimney leading to the bricked off room? In one of the scarier physical sequences of the film, Billy climbs down a rope to get to the box at the bottom of the chimney. There he finds buckets of rainwater and dead animals, and (presumably) a dead body, covered by a sheet in the corner. As he leaves to climb out with the box, someone comes after him, someone that has been surviving in that bricked up room.
The idea that there is a body in the sealed up attic still alive is a terrifying one. The fact that the Marrowbone children potentially put that body up there is even worse. Is it their father? It is all in their minds? Will they kill Porter to keep their secret? Will Allie find out the truth and leave Jack? And why does Jack keep having headaches or seizures and blacking out? How did he get the big gash on his head? This entire build-up and suspense works really well until the last act of the film, when Jack is put in a position to deal with Porter, revealing the truth and all hell breaks loose. Part of me wishes that Allie and Porter were never a part of Sanchez’s plot. Keeping things pared down to just the Marrowbone children (who have great and believable chemistry as siblings) within the confines of a beautiful but scary Gothic house, would have been enough. What if the body up in the attic is really dead? It could have been a fairly satisfying enough ghost story to have the body actually be their dead father, whose memory never releases his terrifying grip on the minds of his children. But Sanchez decides to add too many subplots that need explanation and rips them all open during the film’s conclusion.
After Jack suffers a particularly bad seizure and blackout, Allie learns the truth about the Marrowbone family and what happened that fateful day a man shot a bullet through their window. In flashbacks, we learn that it was indeed their father, returning to hurt his family and reclaim the stolen goods in the metal case. Jack locks his siblings up in the attic room for their protection, and goes to confront their father. He attempts to take the blame and the brunt of their father’s anger but fails. His father bludgeons him with the metal case and throws him off a cliff by the sea, returning to the house to wreak havoc on the remaining children. When Jack awakens, he runs frantically back to the house, grabbing his father’s gun in the process. Allie, who has been reading Jack’s account through a family journal, goes to the Marrowbone home, finding Jack hiding within their family “fortress,” speaking as both himself and his siblings. Jane, Billy and Sam, are nowhere to be found; Jack has split personalities representing each of them. This big reveal, while understandable, is hard to take.
Allie, finding Porter’s belongings near the door, searches the Marrowbone house for him, until she finds the once bricked shut door now broken open, and a bleeding Porter lying on the ground near the uncovered dead bodies of the other Marrowbone children. Porter discovered them earlier before being attacked himself. The Marrowbone’s father, left up in the attic to die, has survived on rainwater and eating vermin. He comes to attack Allie just before Jack saves her life, shooting his father with his own stolen gun. We learn that Jack’s siblings died that day six months ago, up in the attic with their father, and Jack sealed them all in, hoping his father would starve to death up there. Everything since then has happened within Jack’s mind. This could have been the film’s end, but unfortunately Sanchez takes it a few clumsy steps further with an epilogue.
Sanchez shows us that Allie has chosen to remain with Jack after all that happened, speaking to a doctor about his split personality disorder and the medication needed to keep it at bay. The doctor cautions Allie that she is young and giving up all chances at a “normal” life and family of her own. But Allie returns to the Marrowbone estate, and we see her place a full bottle of medication into a bathroom cabinet with several others that have remained untouched. She wakes Jack who is napping, and gives him a photograph of his family from that wonderful day on the beach. This helps the audience at least believe that the rest of Jack’s family were real to begin with, and not just a figment of his imagination. Allie leaves Jack sitting outside then to “speak” to his siblings, whether as ghosts, or the addled memories of his mind; she has become an accomplice to his mental illness as a way for him to hold on to his family. I could have done without this drawn out conclusion, ending the story with the death of his monster of a father. But to be honest, the reality of “ghosts” in our own memories or lives, created by the real life horrors of abusive parents was a much scarier villain to me. I would have liked the film to be more centered on the destruction of a family, damaged by their own parents and fear. Learning to deal with that fear and heal together as a family would have been a much happier ending, but all in all, Marrowbone is still a fairly enjoyable watch with a great ensemble cast, that drips in spooky Gothic eeriness. Worth a watch on a rainy afternoon for sure, so go check it out.
Besides watching movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. IG: @dldimuro