Evil is patient.
After working together on two films (Innerspace and D.O.A.), Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid tied the knot. The next logical progression would be to star in a thriller about past misdeeds haunting the future of a couple of wayward loners in the back end of Texas. They teamed with writer/director Steven Kloves (who had directed Ryan in The Fabulous Baker Boys) and filmed Flesh and Bone, which promptly not to mention predictably, flopped at the box office (it didn't even clear $10 million). This has allowed Paramount to release Flesh and Bone on an overpriced, bare bones DVD.
Facts of the Case
As a child, Arlis (Quaid, though not in the opening scene) runs wild with his father and acts as an accomplice during various house robberies. When one such robbery goes wrong, Arlis gets to watch his dad, Roy Sweeney (James Caan, Misery, The Godfather), slaughter the entire family except for a baby girl.
Thirty years or so pass and Arlis has become a vending machine distributor working in the west end of Texas. It's a lonely life as he travels from town to town, but it's a life filled with a structured routine when he sees the same people on his weekly and monthly stops. It's at one of these stops that Arlis spots a young grifter named Ginnie (a young Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare In Love, Shallow Hal) plying her trade and manages to spot her at various other points on his route. At another one of his stops he witnesses a drunken cake dancer, Kay Davies (Ryan), popping out of her cake and vomiting on the crowd of rowdy reprobates before passing out. Arlis agrees to help the club owner out and takes Kay away so she can sober up. After dealing with Kay's no-good, mullet-wearing, lost-it-all-in-a-poker-game, redneck husband, Kay and Arliss take to traveling together and it doesn't take too long before romance blossoms between them. Everything seems to be going fine for the new couple until Arlis' father finds them. After this, the film begins to defy reasonable explanation, so I won't spoil any of the surprises.
Texas is one of those places in America where the normal rules don't seem to apply. For the most part, the state feels like it's its own country and is completely detached from the other 47 contiguous states. In fiction (and sometimes in history), it can be a grand place of myth and legend. The people who populate the state have their own mannerisms and styles of speech, just like any other geographical region, but if it's from Texas it becomes swagger. This is the type of feel that Flesh and Bone goes for, hitting somewhere in between what Texas realistically is and the legendary, mythical Texas of Garth Ennis' comic book saga "Preacher." With this in mind, the actors all give convincing performances, picking up the nuances of western Texas mannerisms and accents that are necessary for the setting. The cinematography also is equally successful and depicting the wide-open plains, the barren wastelands, and the endless fields found in Texas, a feat that would make the Coen Brothers proud. The same goes for Thomas Newman's haunting film score. You can almost taste Texan dirt in your mouth as you watch the movie.
Unfortunately, that's really all Flesh and Bone offers. Steven Kloves manages to write and direct a number of edge-of-your-seat scenes and develop some three-dimensional characters, such as the sultry but cunning thief Ginnie. Even characters that seem inconsequential, like Arlis' employee Elliot (Scott Wilson, Dead Man Walking), have their own tics that make them unique. While Flesh and Bone may not be short on decent characters, however, it is vastly short on story to keep these characters occupied.
After watching the DVD presentation of Flesh and Bone, I'm only left wondering why Paramount even bothers with the DVD format. I realize that this movie was a total dud at the box office, but at least some notion of caring exhibited towards the transfer would have been nice. It would appear that no restoration work was done on the original film print. At least it's anamorphic, but, then again, so was the transfer for Slugs. The sound spectrum is also unengaging, uninteresting, and flat. Reference quality this is not. It also retails for about 25 bucks, and for that price, you'd think Paramount would provide some decent special features, but you'd be dead wrong; you don't even get a theatrical trailer. I'm actually glad there was no director's commentary, though, as I would have had to watch this film again to listen to the commentary track. The threat of being devoured by giant, angry spiders couldn't have made me watch Flesh and Bone again.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the biggest mistakes in the plot of Flesh and Bone is the supposition that "evil" is an inherited trait. If your father is evil, that means you will be evil because "it's in your blood." While this is something that gets disproved by the time the credits roll, the fact that two major characters act as though this were true simply boggles my mind. You can get into the philosophical debate on this as much as you want, but I just didn't buy into it.
With everything that the movie has going for it (the cast and cinematography) I also don't understand why either a better, more engaging script couldn't have been used or why the film couldn't have been thirty minutes shorter. The lead up to the romance between Arlis and Kay simply takes way too long, and as such it takes too long for the primary conflict in the film involving Roy to rear its ugly head.
There are a couple of other problems I have in regards to the script, but I'm left with something of a quandary because talking about these problems would spoil the plot too much. I will point out that the script relies too heavily on coincidental irony to be believable, and because of this, if you've seen at least five "thrillers" in your lifetime you can probably guess what's going to happen no sooner than thirty minutes before it actually does. There's a certain interconnectedness that the four principle characters share, and while this story hook works in some films, like The Princess And The Warrior, it simply turns Flesh and Bone into a lesson in tedium and predictability. Movies like Fight Club, Memento, and The Sixth Sense were fun because the clues to the ending were all present, but they were hidden enough that most people weren't going to guess the big secret. In Flesh and Bone, the plot is as obvious as a moose would be if it were standing in your living room.
There's one final complaint I have with Flesh and Bone, and that would be James Caan's performance as Roy Sweeney. Please don't get me wrong in thinking that I don't like Caan. That simply couldn't be further from the truth. While Caan does a fairly credible job with the accent, voice inflection, and mannerisms, I had a difficult time with his being cast in this role. I felt he was relying too heavily on his reputation from being a heavy in The Godfather movies, and that bothered me. It could be that the script just didn't give Caan ample screen time. Whatever the reason, his portrayal just didn't work for me.
Flesh and Bone tries very desperately to be a meaningful thriller but ends up being a hollow mood piece. If you have two hours of your life you think you can do without, then, and only then, would I recommend this movie. Otherwise, go outside and play. I'm sure it's nice out.
Evil may be patient, but this judge is not. Flesh and Bone is guilty of being too long, too slow and too boring. Just leave it behind and ride off into the sunset. You'll thank me later. Paramount is guilty of using Fuzzy Math in their pricing schemes and its marketing executives are sentenced to watching this movie non-stop for 72 hours. This might be deemed cruel and unusual, but I'll just have to wait and see if the Chief Justice overturns it. [Chief Justice's Decision: Let 'em hang!]
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