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Children and big, mystery-stuffed houses are hardly unusual ingredients in thrillers; they’re about as common as bumps in the night. But their pairing in Marrowbone, the first feature directed by Sergio G. Sanchez, strikes a familiar and deeply satisfying chord. Set in 1969 America but filmed in Spain, it from the start recalls several other pictures made in Spain by Spanish or Mexican filmmakers: not just The Orphanage, which Sanchez wrote for director J.A. Bayona, but Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others and the Spanish Civil War-set ghost stories of Guillermo del Toro. (Tellingly, Marrowbone‘s Alvaro Augustin has served as a producer on films by all three of these directors.) No moviegoer who loves more than one of those films should be disappointed by this one, a sumptuous tale of various sorts of haunting set in what should be a seaside Eden. Scary enough to please most genre buffs, it would also play well in art houses: If you were to go through and remove every hint of ghosts, you’d still have a drama well worth seeing.
Four siblings from England are brought to an unnamed Northeastern American town by their mother, who grew up here. They move into her childhood home and rechristen themselves with her maiden name, Marrowbone, which is also the estate’s name. “Our story begins here,” she declares, drawing a line in the accumulated dust; but all the talk of fresh starts is clouded by hints of someone back home who very much wants to find them.
Mom dies soon after the move, leaving Jack (George MacKay, who looks like he could be Alan Tudyk’s son) to care for his younger siblings. They make an oath that, from this point forward, “we are one”: They will keep their mother’s death secret until Jack is 21, remaining self-sufficient in hiding.
Self-exile is harder given what good friends they’ve become with their closest neighbor Allie (Anna Taylor-Joy, of The Witch and Split). While second son Billy (Charlie Heaton, the brooding older brother on Stranger Things) chafes at captivity as any adolescent boy would, sister Jane (Mia Goth) and lovable kid-brother Sam (Matthew Stagg) soften the domestic scene. One could imagine this becoming a suspended-animation idyll of innocence — until a bullet flies through an upstairs window, signaling the arrival of the man pursuing them.
Flash forward six months. We don’t know how the siblings survived that confrontation, only that the house now has a ghost in it, mirrors have been covered (lest the ghost use them for spying) and the attic is bricked up. Sanchez rations out some increasingly tense references to places of decay in the house, including an edge-of-seat scene in which Jane should really keep her hand where she can see it. But the more immediate threat would seem to come from Tom (Kyle Soller), a young lawyer handling some estate issues that will transfer ownership of the house to Mrs. Marrowbone, who he doesn’t realize is dead.
Tom is already on edge around the family, as he knows about the trauma they fled back home. (It’s no spoiler to reveal that it has to do with a terrible father.) But his motives get murkier when he realizes that Allie, the girl he loves, is secretly seeing Jack whenever he comes into town for supplies.
Plot summaries should taper off there, as Sanchez delivers a couple of very effective twists that change the nature of his tale. But weaving between the jolts is an aching sweetness — between Jack and Allie, between Sam and the older kids, between Xavi Gimenez’s camera and the seaside cliffs just beyond Marrowbone’s gate. Both Marrowbone and Marrowbone are places you might wish you could hang around for a good deal longer than 109 minutes — assuming the horrors of the past can be put to rest.
Production companies: Marrowbone S.L., Telecino Cinema, Ruidos en el Atico, AIE
Cast: George MacKay, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, Matthew Stagg, Kyle Soller
Director-screenwriter: Sergio G. Sánchez
Producers: Belen Atienza, Alvaro Augustin, Ghislain Barrois
Executive producers: J.A. Bayona, Sandra Hermida, Paloma Molina
Director of photography: Xavi Gimenez
Production designer: Patrick Salvador
Costume designer: Sonia Grande
Editor: Elena Ruiz
Composer: Fernando Velazquez
Casting director: Karen Lindsay-Stewart
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
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