Tuesday, August 25, 2020



To be a true cinephile, you need at least one object of obsession that belongs to you alone. Loving STAR WARS doesn't make you a cinephile any more than loving McDonald's makes you a foodie. And being obsessed with someone like David Lynch or an oddball failure like Tommy Wiseau's THE ROOM only means that you belong to a cult. Please understand that none of the preceding is intended to diminish STAR WARS, THE ROOM, or the films of David Lynch. I'm just saying that none of them belong to any one fan, or even small group of fans, anymore. Once an ancillary industry builds around the fandom of a particular film or filmmaker, the original film becomes more of a small business and/or a quasi-religion.

To be a real cinephile, by contrast, means being a cult of one. There are no t-shirts made about your object of obsession, no film-about-the-film, no spinoffs, reboots, sequels, or prequels. There's just a movie that someone made that you saw and fell deeply in love with.

Which brings us to FLESH AND BONE. Written and directed by Steve Kloves, the film is a Texas noir starring Dennis Quaid as Arlis Sweeney,  a solitary man who spends his days driving across the Lone Star State stocking vending machines. One night at a honky tonk, he meets Kay Davies (Meg Ryan), a woman fleeing an abusive husband. Kay just kind of drifts into Arlis's life and decides to stay, but before long trouble arrives in the ominous form of Roy Sweeney (James Caan), Arlis's brutal criminal father. He brings with him uncomfortable reminders of past crimes.

We know what those crimes are. In the film's opening scenes, set in Arlis's childhood, we see the events that tie these characters together. Roy and Arlis attempt to rob a farmhouse in the middle of the night. When the family wakes up, Roy executes everyone in the house. Everyone except a baby girl.

Of course, the baby girl grows up to be Kay Davies and although Arlis assures his father that she never needs to find out what happened on that long ago night, the wicked old man isn't so sure. "It's robbing me of my sleep. And you know how I value my sleep." The final confrontation between father and son is inevitable.

FLESH AND BONE is novelistic in its depth and in the measured way it tells its story. It comes billed as a "thriller" or a "mystery" in most descriptions, though its not really either of those things. There's some gun play at the beginning and again at the end, but it's not for thrills, and there's not really a mystery to be solved, no "whodunit" to figure out. We know from the start whodunit.

Instead, the pleasures of the film are in the character details, the low rolling Texas landscape, and the sense of guilt and foreboding that hangs over everything. There's more than a bit of Jim Thompson here, in the way that genial good ol' boy conversations mask violent intentions, and in the way low-rent grifters drift from place to place doing damage and then moving on.

But FLESH AND BONE is its own thing. The film's central section, before Roy shows back up, is just Arlis and Kay riding around in his truck getting to know each other, sharing the bond of people who have survived traumas and disappointments, and find themselves falling in love. Quaid and Ryan were married at the time, and unlike some married couples who somehow don't quite click onscreen, their chemistry here is natural and easy. Quaid reigns in his normal energy, that cocky country swagger that made him a star (he only deploys his famous smile once or twice in the film). He's reserved, quiet, repressed. Yet his performance isn't devoid of emotion. "You were always so...sensitive," his father tells him disdainfully, and we know that this is true. Arlis's whole personality is like an oil derrick, slowly measuring out the inexhaustible ocean of emotion just below the surface. Ryan on the other hand gives a performance of charm and bruised wit. It's unlike most of the performances we associate her with, less bubbly than her romantic comedies but not as dire as some of the darker works later in her career. She makes Kay a quirky lost soul, someone who might have had a very different life if not for the tragedy in her past.

I love all the little touches in the movie, like the details of Arlis's vending machine business. He stocks chili, condoms, and candy bars, but he also specializes in "exotic attractions" like Brainy Betty, a live chicken, painted blue, that sits in a glass box and plays tic-tac-toe for a quarter a game. "What makes her so brainy?" Kay asks. "She wins nine games out of ten," Arlis answers.

There are also nice supporting roles that deepen the themes of the story. A young Gwyneth Paltrow plays Roy's protegee girlfriend, a sour-faced grifter who shows up at funerals claiming to be a long lost relative and then steals jewelry off the bodies of the deceased. (Paltrow is excellent, and the role is a reminder that before she became the face of rich white lady cluelessness, Paltrow could be believable as trash.) And Scott Wilson is fantastic in a small role as Arlis's shifty employee, a man who is probably stealing from Arlis but who still emerges as one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, anyway. Both these roles mirror the leads in interesting ways, with Paltrow as a meaner, more beat up version of Kay, and Wilson as an older, sadder version of Arlis. 

The result of all of this is a rich film, one that creates its own west Texas universe of love and loss. The central symbol of the film is a single blue star--a tattoo hidden just below Alris's hairline, but also the neon sign at the top of the Stardust motel where he lives, and the Willie Nelson version of the song "Stardust" Arlis and Kay dance to one night--a reminder of a past that can't be escaped. That's ultimately what FLESH AND BONE is all about, the way the past isn't just a distant memory, but a mark made on us that we can't really escape.

I was being a little cheeky at the start by saying that I'm a cult of one for this film. I assume there are other people out there who love it as much as I do. But our number is not legion. FLESH AND BONE lost money at the box office when it was released in 1993, got middling reviews (Roger Ebert, for instance, dismissed it with two stars), and has not developed a noticeable online following. The film's main creative force Steve Kloves, who had previously directed THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, later went on to a hugely successful career writing the Harry Potter movies, but he hasn't directed another film since FLESH AND BONE. Its current IMDB score is a flaccid 6.2 and in the 27 years since its release there has been virtually no scholarship about the film.

And yet, for me, the film is personal favorite, one that's haunted me and intrigued me since I first saw it in a theater in Little Rock 27 years ago. FLESH AND BONE was the first movie I ever saw in a theater by myself. I was 18 and had just moved away from home. I sat there in the dark, in the almost completely empty auditorium, and I knew as I watched it that this film was for me. It's been a guiding star ever since.    


fragments of noir said...

Excellent review with great detailed observations. On a movie i'm familiar with but haven't watched so far. Need to move it up the "to watch" list.

Keep em comin

Unknown said...

You have certainly done this cinematic diamond in the rough the justice it deserves! It is a great film. Unfortunately, people were stuck on special effects and dinosaur movies at the time. Truly memorable neo-noir.