One beautiful thing about life is that the possibility to start over is readily available to various degrees. While that may require a choice between fight or flight, the opportunity to abandon one’s past is not entirely out of the question, at least in the physical sense. You can change your appearance, change your name, and even move across the ocean; but the past has tendencies to haunt and even hunt you down despite your best efforts to evade its grisly hold. Spanish writer/director Sergio G. Sánchez explores this notion of escapism through tainted family dynamics with an undercurrent of paranormal activity that is also sugar-coated with an innocent love story. The combination yields a serpentine plot that has a few creepy aesthetic charms, but is too layered with twists and subplots to deliver a cohesive, captivatingly fluid narrative.
Set in 1969, a family of English immigrants inhabit an abandoned mansion in rural America that once belonged to matriarch Rose Marrowbone (Nicola Harrison). Drawing a line in dust across tattered floorboards, Rose decides to change her family’s last name to Marrowbone as a way of scorning the children’s father and symbolically asks them to step over the division, thus embracing their new life through forgotten memories. Upon her death, the eldest son, Jack, (George MacKay) promises to keep their family together, protect his younger siblings, and sustain their home with stolen funds they try to avoid spending at all costs. Jane (Mia Goth) assumes the motherly role by taking care of timid five-year-old Sam (Matthew Stagg), and temperamental Billy (Charlie Heaton) assists his older brother whenever possible. Jack becomes infatuated with a local librarian named Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is deeply devoted to him despite his flaws. Maintaining their reclusive and independent lifestyle deems problematic once a local lawyer starts snooping into their estate and exudes jealousy among Allie and Jack’s budding romance.
In between all of the melodrama, there is a sinister being that taunts the children within the walls of their home.Tension is built up for a handful of predictable jump scares, and the visual details of a seemingly restless ghost shifts throughout the film. Similar to Cole Sear’s makeshift shelter in The Sixth Sense, the siblings construct a tent fort which provides them comfort and a sense of safety whenever they feel like the spirit is in their presence. Additionally, they listen to The Beach Boys’ "Wouldn’t It Be Nice" on the record player to help soothe their anxieties. This song, a picture of Nixon on the wall, and a couple of striking period outfits worn by Allie are the only noticeable nods to the period. Like the storyline, the setting of the film possesses a muddled translation often resembling an earlier time period.
All of the mirrors in the home have either been removed or covered with sheets. In some cultures, this is a fairly standard mourning practice as covering a mirror after one dies enables their loved ones to focus on remembering them, while others believe that mirrors have the capability to capture spirits, inhibiting them from properly advancing into the afterlife. The emphasis placed on mirrors in the film appears to be a lost opportunity and instead just conjures unfulfilling tension for a jump scare or two.
The majority of the film presents very minimal backstory into the family’s history, which arouses questions originating from boredom, rather than intrigue, over the course of the almost two-hour-long film. The tone fluctuates between drama, horror, and romance that amalgamates in its hodgepodge storyline despite fairly strong acting from the cast. The attempt to evoke multiple emotions and misdirection is clearly evident since the script was written in a series of fractured submissions and not an intact unit. This writing process translates on camera as seemingly random plot points and a narrative structure that continuously builds, primarily in the third act, with the last twenty minutes unpacking explanations to an exhausting degree.
Sánchez does possess an affinity for thematic works where children struggle with the early onset of adult stresses as seen in his work as a screenwriter for The Orphanage and The Impossible. Cinematographer, Xavi Giménez contributes a striking visual aesthetic to the characters and haunted home reminiscent of his work on The Machinist. The grey-scale color palettes of the decrepit manor complement the pale skin of the Marrowbone family while juxtaposing the vibrant color of Allie’s lively depiction in her green, blue, and yellow attire. There is a gothic, supernatural atmosphere and themes of ostracization in which a family is physically, socially, and ideologically removed from its nearby town folk which is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. However, the skeletal structure of the story ultimately does not support its ambition and visual beauty enough to leave a memorable impression.