It's grim and it's good.
"Flesh and Bone" opens ominously and holds to the threat. Approaching a dark country house under a moonless night, the camera lingers in close-up on wind chimes, shutters and a dog that tries to warn his family. If trouble is always a possibility, the reality of it usually seems remote. As most of us would, the father puts the barking dog in the barn so the family can sleep. The catastrophe happens quickly in a thundering tragedy. Over and done with in seconds, it leaves the audience both numb and engrossed.
The story jumps twenty-five years ahead into the lives of the survivors. They are drifters now - not footloose, heedless travelers with a pinch of charming irresponsibility, but deliberate, burdened people whose past left at least two of them so damaged that nothing ahead of them can make any sense at all.
Arlis (Dennis Quaid), is a vending machine operator who travels his routes restocking the machines with condoms and soups from the pickup truck that serves as home and office. When Kay Davies (Meg Ryan) literally falls out of a birthday cake into his life in a bar, the two rootless people make their connection on quicksand. Arlis carries the wound of his childhood so deeply that no one can pierce the shell he has built. He has a deep, quiet sweetness that he uses to erase the terror he has seen.
Arlis' wholly evil father, Roy (James Caan), a study in banality and cruelty, reappears. When the depraved brute says to his son, "We're flesh and bone," Arlis' shell begins to crack. He will have to deal with the dreadful event of his childhood.
Roy's young sidekick, Ginnie (Gwyneth Paltrow), is a compulsive thief with a twist: she steals rings and watches from the limbs of corpses with her Vaselined fingers. If you think this foursome is a grim assemblage, you're right, but the whole thing is pulled together with fine camera work, a good score and some memorable acting.
Meg Ryan doesn't play it cute or perky, she plays it sad. Dennis Quaid uses great restraint, betraying his deeply damaged soul with his eyes alone as he goes about his dreary work. James Caan is arresting as the evil force that has ruined so many lives, and Gwyneth Paltrow draws every eye whenever she's on screen. She invests her amoral creature with a strange, compelling quality. Remember her name.
Writer/director Steve Kloves, working with a southern staple of vulnerability to strangers in rural settings, captures the terrible helplessness of victims in isolation. He draws his characters by showing us that they live their lives in shabbiness on every level without hope or even knowledge that life might be better. They smoke their way through their misery in pickups and The Stardust Motel with its neon lights and flaking letters. It's a world of small time cheats and big time cruelty. It's grim and it's good.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 498
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