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Some thirty years after Arlis witnesses his father murdering a family, he runs into Kay, who happens to be the family's baby who was spared. Kay and Arlis suspect nothing about each other, but when his father returns, old wounds are reopened. Written by
I've been thankful for many things during the strange journey that has been my life. Among them was that I had never seen nor heard of Gwyneth Paltrow before seeing Steven Kloves' unsung, too-often trashed work, Flesh and Bone. Although this film has been deemed unwatchable by some; primarily, I suspect, by those who simply cannot deal with Meg Ryan in any form, Flesh and Bone is entirely watchable and often engrossing.
I stumbled onto it by accident one afternoon, when the film I had paid to see suffered a projector crash, leaving me to wander the nearly empty multiplex at my leisure. Flesh and Bone, said the sign over the door. Hmm. supernatural thriller with voodoo elements? Well, not really, although the scene that greeted me as I entered: a very scary-looking James Caan, with shotgun, skulking through a shadowy interior, made me think my initial assessment had been close (I had entered its theater a few minutes after the film had started.) Just a few more minutes passed before I realized that I was in the presence of something, at the least, unusual. First, considerable time elapsed without Dennis Quaid flashing his '55 DeSoto grille grin even once. In fact, he was scowling like all getout. Meg Ryan barely smiled either and it was well into the film before she first flipped her hair (while talking about pickles). Very strange. Being something of a sucker for films that cast against type, I was getting pulled in. But WHO was the spooky chick who kept walking in and out of various scenes, shoplifting something in almost each case?
That was Gwyneth, of course. If she had played the role of the deeply alienated Ginnie later in her career, she certainly could have pulled it off, but the mystery of her character, the thing that made you try to imagine the circumstances that had created such a creature, would never have manifested. It just would have been Gwynnie playing Ginnie. I'll be honest, I've remained immune to the whole Gwyneth thing. To me, she's something like Gouda cheese; certainly edible, but best if you're in the mood for a snack with somewhat more aroma than flavor. I admit that I've always dug her Mom, Blythe Danner, among the most delicately fair of all cinematic flowers. But I loved Gwyneth Paltrow in this film, still do, and always will. I don't think she stole the show, as some seem to, but her perfectly-played Ginnie was absolutely essential to it.
The rather default brutality that lurks in Flesh and Bone could seem artificial, but against the historical backdrop of Texas, where it is set, the film's slant makes sense. Texas history has been drenched in blood and tragedy from the start; Cabeza De Vaca, the lonely, ignominous demise of the LaSalle expedition, which foundered and was swallowed up on its Gulf Coast in an attempt to navigate the Mississippi northward, conflict with Spain and Mexico, the Comanche terror, the slaughter of its vast buffalo herds, its rape by oil and cattle culture, Texas politicians (just hitting a few high spots). Merely passing through the state can give one the sense that a loose black hole is about, not a massive one, but big enough.
Flesh and Bone is a promenade of the gravitationally doomed. Everyone in the film seems to be drifting toward the event horizon of an unseen singularity, just beginning to be stretched out of shape. Closest to oblivion is James Caan's chilling Roy Sweeney, a character in the mold of Christopher Walken's very bad dad in At Close Range but chicken-fried to the brink of carbonization; a man for whom conscience is no longer even a concept. Plunging close behind is his son Arliss (Quaid), someone who, after matriculating under his father's brutal tutelage, has become an exile to his own life. His flickering soul is not quite dead yet, but give it time. Meg Ryan's Kay Davies, the unknowing survivor, as an infant, of the film's opening horror, is a type of gently tragic heroine one can see anywhere, but most often in the South, the most culturally monolithic and unforgiving region of an unforgiving America. (Texas is the West but also, most certainly, the South.) Free-form and fundamentally cheerful personalities like Kay's may not always fare well there, unless legitimized by kids and a ring; something her character is beginning to understand as she pops, drunk, out of a paper cake at a roadhouse hoo-rah. Paltrow's Ginnie is possibly the most recent gravitational captive, but she has entered the plunge with cryogenic conviction, forming a binary dark star with Caan's character.
I liked this little film enough to collect it and have never regretted it. There is real psychological texture, a noiresque sense of doom, convincing intimacy set against a vast West Texas backdrop, a house haunted by ghosts living and dead, a brief, poignant performance by the never-failing Scott Wilson, a great score by the brilliant Thomas Newman (I started watching the TV series Boston Public just to hear its opening theme music, which he composed) and a closing scene as mythic as that of any cowboy classic. The film's conclusion flirts a bit with improbability but still works because, dear friends, karma does exist. It's not just a hippie word. Leave the Anti-Megs to their own gravitational plunge and enjoy.
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