Director: Sergio G. Sánchez
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sánchez
Starring: George MacKay, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, Matthew Stagg, Kyle Soller, Nicola Harrison, Tom Fisher
Runtime: 110 Minutes
The Secret of Marrowbone (known in most territories simply as Marrowbone) is the directorial debut of Spanish screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez. Billed as a dramatic horror film, the film follows the young Jack Marrowbone (George MacKay) and his three younger siblings, who move from Britain to rural America in the late-1960s to escape their imprisoned and abusing father and have kept secret the death of their beloved mother in order to remain together until Jack’s 21st birthday. All while being are plagued by a sinister presence in the sprawling manor in which they live.
But that’s the deception that ultimately feels like the failing of this strangely antagonistic looking and sounding gothic horror. What’s being pitched by the trailers as something akin to a more traditional ghost story actually only compromises of about 20% of the film. The supposed ghost itself cropping up only once or twice as a minor plot element that doesn’t really have that much to do with the rest of the drama – and that drama of which is a mostly dull, highly predictable rehash of the same twist-laden premises that have come in the decades before.
To discuss just exactly why the film feels so tired and unoriginal would basically undo much of what the ‘secret’ of the title is actually meant to be. Or rather secrets, as the film runs on a few different tracks that all seem to converge but don’t really have much bearing on one another beyond plot distractions. Otherwise, if the audience were left alone with the Marrowbone children for too long, they’d figure out exactly what’s really going on much earlier than the film and its maker would like you too.
It’s not even that hard to guess either, and that the film plays so coy with it for so long is kind of baffling as the screenplays contrives a structure for itself to support the nature of its surprise, but leaves itself wide open for the audience to start questioning it so early on in a way that’s not intended.
There’s an opening prologue sequence to set up the characters and the initial drama, and then just as something that looks like its going to be rather significant is about to happen, the film smash cuts to six months down the line without a resolution. Leaving the audience to go “Wow, what a conspicuous event and amount of time to cut out” and therefore figure out exactly where this is actually going – especially those already familiar with his past work on The Orphanage.
It mostly just whiffs of incompetency a lack of confidence on the part of Sánchez to structure it in this way, but what brings down the film more is just how surprisingly dull it ends up being as it draws out its runtime for a suspense that doesn’t really manifest as well as it should.
The scenario is interesting for sure, seeing how a dynamic of young siblings manage to hide themselves away and support themselves for so long while conspicuously remaining indoors except for Jack, who leaves once a day to buy supplies and woo love interest Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy) – who is also being wooed by jealous Kyle Soller’s social climber Tom, who is also conveniently tied back into the Marrowbone’s financial dealings as they sign over the house to their deceased mother.
It’s just a bit of a narrative mess that keeps holding back the essential information that we know is coming, and as a horror it barely registers as one not just down to its inability to convincingly portray a supernatural presence, but that the children never feel in an immediate state of danger beyond their fears of separation. Which would probably fare better if they were in any way interesting or three dimensional beyond Jack, which they’re not.
It’s mostly saved from utter banality by the performances of the young cast. MacKay and Taylor-Joy being the standouts and baring the most screen time. The other Marrowbone children just come down to traits but you can see the actors trying to endow them with more to work with. Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton is the hot-headed Billy, A Cure for Wellness’ Mia Goth is the motherly Jane and Matthew Stagg as is the youngest Sam, who’s the youngest one.
The Secret of Marrowbone is a film trying so hard to be clever through its establishment of visual clues and editing shortcuts as a means of setting up a puzzle box narrative, that it forgets to really populate it with anything else to keep it more engaging or original beyond its very talented young cast, and a handsome but nonsensical aesthetic that looks much older than it really should considering its period setting.