Sunday, April 29, 2012

Flesh and Bone (1993)

Question, how many of you actually watched the previews on VHS tapes back in the day and didn’t fast forward right to the feature presentation? Truth be told, I watched them the majority of the time, only hitting the “FF” button on the remote when there seemed to be an endless amount of them, but I would stop if something caught my eye. They were a good source of letting us know what was coming soon to home video, especially if we missed a certain movie in the theatres. Remember this was way before we could instantly access a trailer on YouTube or other sites. Well, one such tape where I watched all the previews on was Coneheads. Yeah, that’s right, fucking Coneheads. Don’t ask. Anyway, the last trailer on that tape was for this film, Flesh and Bone. It’s threatening music, cryptic nature, not really giving me a good idea as to what it was about, and it’s overtly ominous tone gave off a very creepy vibe and had me intrigued instantly. I had to see it, when it hit video store shelves, off to the video store I went, and sure enough they had a copy just waiting for me to take home. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of misleading trailers that make a film look awesome and when you finally see the film it’s nothing like you imagined from the trailer. This was one of those instances where the trailer did the film justice, and ever since I first rented it 19 years ago, Flesh and Bone became one of my favorite films, regardless of genre. I’m going to make a bold statement and declare Flesh and Bone the most underrated film of the 90’s.

Arlis Sweeney (Dennis Quaid) is a man who walks alone. Running his own business re-stocking vending machines across west Texas, his job allows him to live life on the road, living out of his truck and hotel rooms. During a bachelor party going on at one of his usual stops the stripper who was supposed to pop out of the cake and do a show had a little too much to drink and instantly vomits all over the patrons before passing out. Arlis, being the good hearted Texan that he is, agrees to take the lady to a room to sleep it off for the night. The lady is Kay Davies (Meg Ryan), another lonely soul, trying to get away from a dead end marriage to a deadbeat husband. Arlis and Kay instantly strike up a bond, and Arlis takes her on the road with him. But they’re being tracked, as Arlis sees a strange young woman turning up wherever he goes, and once Arlis’ estranged criminal father Roy (James Caan) and his new squeeze, petty thief Ginnie (Gwyneth Paltrow), who just so happens to be the strange woman Arlis was seeing everywhere, enter the picture, it comes to light that Arlis and Kay have a lot more in common than just being loners, and it isn’t pretty.

Flesh and Bone is a very grim movie. It starts off on a bleak note with a family being massacred in a farmhouse and doesn’t get any sunnier as it goes along, and I’m willing to bet that’s a big reason why it wasn’t a smash hit when it was first released in 1993. There’s just something about this film that always got to me and it still has the same effect whenever I watch it. The nostalgia factor is obvious, as I’m instantly transported back to 1993 but it’s so much more than that. It has a way of sucking you right in. It’s gripping, getting under your skin and into your head. Let me say this right off the bat. You have to get past the fact that the Quaid and Ryan characters meeting up is something that only happens in magical movie land, a classic suspension of disbelief situation. Also, it’s really not all that difficult to figure out just what the connection between the two is. You really don’t have to do too much guess work, but personally I never saw this as a major flaw. I often wonder if it was writer/director Steve Kloves’ intention to make it not so difficult to figure out, having us know all along what the situation is, and building suspense just waiting for Arlis to figure it all out. The thriller aspect of the film comes from waiting for Arlis to get wise to what’s going on and wondering what will become of the revelation. Over the years people have complained about the ending, calling it ant-climatic and all that. In a way that’s accurate but had it been handled any other way the impact would have been lessened immensely. It ends just as tragically as it started, just as the lives of the people in the film will continue to be.

The film is a morose character study, the people in this film have so much baggage you’ll back will hurt just watching. They’re all flawed in one way or another and come across as empty as the dusty old towns that Arlis travels to and from. Arlis is content with his life being stagnant, claiming to be a creature of habit, eating the same food, seeing the same faces, sleeping in the same beds and hearing the same talk, and he likes it that way. It’s obvious he is scarred and distant, running from something. There is a lot of discussion in this film of having a disposition to bad behavior, if violence runs in your bloodline it’s inescapable. As one of Arlis’ clients claims, “people think you got it in ya”. Arlis knows this and he is quick to avoid confrontation at all costs. When he witnesses Kay’s husband hit her, he does nothing. He has the same reaction when he finds out one of his clients has been shortchanging him. There is a telling moment in the film where Roy claims that the same blood that runs through him, runs through Arlis, whether he likes it or not. Arlis is more than desperate to be the exact opposite of Roy. Dennis Quaid perfectly captured Arlis’ struggle and distant personality. He has this nervousness about him that carries over to Arlis making his performance all the more convincing. His face tells the whole story. He spends most of the time with a despondent, defeated look on his face, rarely sporting a smile, although this film really doesn’t call for much smiling.

I’m going to be perfectly honest here and say that this is the only movie I’ve seen with Meg Ryan in it, but she’s great here. Kay is a vulnerable, instantly sympathetic figure and Ryan’s performance reflects that. Damaged goods for sure but it’s only partially her fault. She’s the only character in the film that’s 100% likable, and the only one to get Arlis to show some “life“. Matter of fact, the only time the glum look on Arlis face disappears is when he’s with Kay. James Cann is a bad motherfucker. He gives a subtle, eerie performance as the villainous Roy. The guy is bad news personified, and Caan gives him a calmness that makes him all the more menacing. Any interaction between him and Quaid is intense, and almost uncomfortable thanks to the dialogue and the convincing job both men do as father and son. While Arlis does voice his displeasure with Roy’s presence many times in the film, he’s always clearly holding back. Roy knows Arlis hates him, be he also knows he still fears him, and he takes great delight in that. The final confrontation between the two perfectly illustrates Arlis insecurities as well as the awkward tension between the two. Even in a moment as monumental as the scene is, Arlis is still unsure of himself, waiting until the last millisecond to make a life or death decision. It’s really a brilliantly acted scene with Quaid really showing off his chops. Gwyneth Paltrow was convincing as the white trash scam Ginnie, pulling off the accent and the general slimy nature of the character. There is nothing remotely redeeming about her. She knows she’s trailer trash and she admits it, even accepting it. The dialogues between her and Ryan only shed a more positive light on Kay, as she always sees some good in everyone, even someone like Ginnie, although Ginnie rarely accepts her compliments claiming there’s nothing “good” about her. Like I said these people are sad.

I’ve always said that this is a film where it feels like it’s going to storm in every scene. The way Kloves filmed it there is a definite feeling of menace that surrounds the film. The proverbial dark cloud that follows Arlis around also follows the viewer. Every frame is smothered in atmosphere, the locations and overall vibe the film gives off sets the perfect tone. I’m a sucker for the type of imagery that the film seen throughout the film, so I was immediately drawn in right from the start. The opening title sequence instantly sets up the mood with the exterior shots of the farm house and it’s surroundings, sacrificing music for the natural drones of the environment, animals, the creeking of equipment and a metal swing. Foreboding to say the least. The house manages to have the same effect during the climax, despite it now being long abandoned and decrepit, that same sense of dread is ever present, as it’s impossible to forget the violence that occurred at the beginning of the film. No film set in Texas would be complete without some good country music on the soundtrack, and this is no different. Great songs from Willie Nelson, George Jones, who’s song “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win” is given some tongue and cheek connotations when played given the context of the film, and an amazing use of the song “Blue Moon Revisited” by the amazing Cowboy Junkies. When I hear that song it’s impossible not to get visions of lonely motel rooms inhabited by even lonelier souls and desolate, long stretches of highway surrounded by nothing and this film is filled with such things. The scene wherein the song is played is played in the background of Arlis and Kay’s motel room provided a perfect backdrop for the songs somber, yet tranquil tone and the music and imagery complimented each other flawlessly.
Should have been the VHS/DVD cover.

When Flesh and Bone was released leads Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan were married, and I’m sure the general public wanted to see the two in some lame romantic comedy, not a depressing film such as this. While it got some good reviews from critics, the film didn’t do so hot at the box office, and seemed to have been forgotten about over the years. (It‘s mind blowing to think this film turns 20 next year) A damn shame, but I was quite pleased to read many positive reviews of the film on IMDb and Amazon, so it defiantly does have it’s fair share fans, although it does seem to still be pretty unknown to a lot of people, which is strange when you consider the big name cast. One of those situations where those who know, KNOW. Paramount did release it on DVD back in 2002, in an overpriced bare bones edition of course. I’ll always hope that some company who cares about the film will acquire the rights to it and give it the royal DVD treatment it deserves. I’m talking interviews, commentaries, the works. Wishful thinking on my part, I know. Nevertheless though, it’s a film that I’ve always been a champion of, and will continue to be hoping to turn other onto it. Flesh and Bone makes no apologies for it’s dreariness, and hopefully you’ll be willing to spend 2 dark hours with some shady and desperate characters, as it’s an underappreciated movie with a ton of staying power. You’ll be thinking about it long after it’s over.


  1. Never heard of it, but it sounds fucking awesome. This isn't usually my type of flick. Might have to Netflix it.

  2. First of all Tom I want to say thank you for this awesome post about one of my favourite films. I've been a fan of Flesh And Bone as long as you have and it's uncanny how similar our opinions of this film are.
    I totally agree that it's the most underrated film of the 1990s; everything about it appeals to my taste, the pacing, the script, the locations, all four main characters and the music.
    I actually mamaged to get hold of Thomas Newman's soundtrack quite recently and I was actually listening to it last night.
    I also own the "bare bones" DVD that Paramount released in 2002 and like you I really hope a company like The Criterion Collection will get hold of Flesh and Bone and give it the release it deserves, until then I'll continue watching the copy I've got and I'm sure it will carry on haunting me every time I watch it.
    Thanks again Tom and good luck with your blog. I'll be sure to stop by and read your posts in the future.

  3. Paul, I was thinking Criterion as well haha. I've never seen the soundtrack anywhere. But I will say that it was because of this film I became a Cowboy Junkies fan. I bought the Trinity Session album right after hearing Blue Moon Revisited in it.

    Yeah Dom, it's great. Never thought I'd review a film with Meg Ryan in it did ya? hehe.