Flesh and Bone (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One night in the early 1960s, a young boy is taken in by a West Texas family. He claims that he's lost, and, being the decent folk that they are, his benefactors decide that it's their responsibility to see that he's fed, bathed, and given a place to sleep. But this guest turns out not to be the homeless waif the family believed him to be, and, when he's discovered letting his criminal father, Roy (James Caan), into the house to rob it, a bloodbath ensues. The sole surviving member of the family is a baby girl. Father, mother, and son are all brutally gunned down -- two of them in cold blood.

Thirty years later, the boy has grown into the man, Arlis Sweeny (Dennis Quaid), a vending machine stocker who roams from town-to-town following a set routine that gives him comfort and helps shield him from memories better left buried. Then, into his life comes Kay (Meg Ryan), a woman whose future is as bleak as her past, and suddenly Arlis' deeds of thirty years ago return to haunt him anew.

Flesh and Bone is film noir, complete with the characters and settings expected from the genre. It's a thriller that doesn't rely on action for its suspense. Drama -- occasionally spilling over to melodrama -- is the backbone. The story isn't overplotted; the only real twist is easily guessed, and, while the entire script turns on one massive coincidence, that event is so expertly buried within the context of a gripping tale that it doesn't seem so implausible when it happens. Chock it up to fate's bitterly ironic sense of humor.

Writer/director Steve Kloves, who penned The Fabulous Baker Boys, displays the same strength of character here as in his previous effort. He creates a quartet of highly believable people: the taciturn loner Arlis; the emotionally and physically battered Kay; the ornery, pragmatically deadly Roy; and the shameless survive-at-all-costs Ginnie (played by Gwyneth Paltrow). Though things may not move that quickly in Flesh and Bone, these four keep the audience engrossed. Hollywood conventions are routinely flouted. The tension comes not from cinematic tricks and musical crescendos, but from a combination of the vivid atmosphere and the steady, dreadful buildup to an inevitable conclusion.

Dennis Quaid, normally chosen for cocky, devil-may-care roles, plays Arlis with an effective subdued charm. Meg Ryan is likewise solid, cast against type as the swearing, boozing Kay. Her best moments are those when her character's vulnerable side is allowed to show. James Caan turns in one of his most disturbing performances in a long time. The real eye-opener, however, is Gwyneth Paltrow, who more than holds her own playing opposite three established stars. Her performance as the sexy, cynical Ginnie is fresh and unaffected, and it doesn't take long for us to get into the character's head to understand her motives and crushed dreams.

Perhaps, ultimately, Flesh and Bone is mostly-static, and maybe its central plot element is hard to swallow. But these characters are so impressive, and their circumstances so compelling, that I didn't care about shortcomings in the story. Flesh and Bone is all suspenseful buildup without shoot-outs, chases, and explosions, and its conclusion doesn't demand a neatly-packaged resolution. More importantly, it's one of the few successful '40s-type noir thrillers to grace the big screen in recent years.

Flesh and Bone (United States, 1993)

Director: Steve Kloves
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, James Caan, Gwyneth Paltrow
Screenplay: Steve Kloves
Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 1993-11-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: