Exhausting zig-zagging path

George MacKay and Anya Taylor-Joy star in Marrowbone.
George MacKay and Anya Taylor-Joy star in Marrowbone.

REVIEW / SUPERNATURAL MYSTERY

MARROWBONE (PG13)

110 minutes/Opens today/3 stars

The story: A single-parent family, mother Rose (Nicole Harrison) and her children Jack (George MacKay), Billy (Charlie Heaton), Jane (Mia Goth) and Sam (Matthew Stagg) move into an isolated farmhouse, the mother's former home. They meet a neighbour, Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy). In that desolate place, filled with shadows and things that go bump in the night, the Marrowbones try to create a place that will shield them from a tragic past that no one wants to talk about.

In this feature debut by Spanish writer-director Sergio G. Sanchez, timelines are juggled, characters speak in code and the story is told by a protagonist whose grasp of events is anything but reliable.

Sanchez wrote the screenplay for The Impossible (2012). As in the disaster epic about the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, his new film puts the focus on a family of survivors and the love that sustains them through a horrific period.

The movie stubbornly resists revealing key plot points till late in the picture and, even then, manages to pack in an M. Night Shyamalan-style twist as its final surprise.

Criss-crossing timelines have been an annoying fad of late, but it helps that Sanchez handles the transitions organically and seamlessly. There is a price to be paid, however. The effort at pulling the rug from under the audience creates the veil of mystery, but it feels dangerously close to being an unearned and unnecessary affectation.

There is, however, genuine emotional depth, gained largely through Sanchez's obvious affection for delineating the character of older brother Jack, a young man who has to care for his siblings, each of whom has his or her own distinct personality.

The horror element is restricted to a few moments of creepiness when shadows in the farmhouse wiggle and squirm.

Even then, these scenes do not exist merely to scare, but are filtered through the director's sense of romanticism.

Adopting a magical realist tone similar to that of Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, 2006, and The Shape Of Water, 2017), Sanchez blurs the time period and geographical location of the story. This is iconic small-town America, around the time of the first moon landings.

And also in the magical realist tradition, the dead and the living exist on the same plane - or do they?

The climax packs a nice wallop in giving the answer, but by then all that zig-zagging might have exhausted the audience past the point of caring.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2018, with the headline 'Exhausting zig-zagging path'. Print Edition | Subscribe