A bleak and memorable drama unfolds in 'Flesh and Bone'

November 05, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The physical site of "Flesh and Bone" is the featureless plains of West Texas but the psychological site is halfway between Randy's House o' Ribs and Aeschylus' House o' Atreus.

Like a fate-haunted Greek drama from three millennia ago, this dour, mesmerizing tale of cross-generational mayhem somehow manages to strike a deeper resonance than a mere crime melodrama, which is fortunate, because it's not a very good crime melodrama.

It begins 30 years in the past, when a Texas farm family takes in a strange young wanderer, a boy with a star tattooed near the hairline. They feed him a nice meal of fried chicken and tuck him in for the night, planning to take him to the police in the morning. But morning never comes; he awakens in the night, unlocks the door to let his professional thief of a father in and his father kills everybody in the house except for a baby.

In the dreary present, that boy has grown into a wary, isolated adult named Arlis Sweeny, whose hairline tattoo still sets him off from the rest of the species. His very choice of profession echoes his traumatic exile from society: He services vending machines in four or five rural counties, an occupation that institutionalizes his sense of drift and literally consumes his life 11 with the nickles and dimes. And in his vacant face and robotic movements we see the living residue of the long-ago tragedy.

This is a Dennis Quaid you've never seen before. The ebullience has been milled out, perhaps by too many late-night readings of writer-director Steve Kloves' depressant of a script. The Quaid shtick -- that hustling fast-talker, with a switchblade smile and the smirk of a man who's had too much sex too young -- is nowhere in sight. Arlis is a hurtin' cowboy kind of guy.

But fate is hunting him. As he floats between peeling cafes in jerkwater towns, truck stops on the lonesome highways and the occasional honky-tonk roadhouse, he finally meets a woman who might save him from himself. This is Kay Davies, as played by Meg Ryan, a sprightly refugee from a ruined marriage and a chaotic upbringing. There's something in the strange rhythms that immediately spring up between Kay and Arlis that suggest in another life they may have known each other. Is it chemistry or is it love? Whatever, it sure is fun.

But then another shadow from the past: bodacious and cruel, eyes wide with cunning and charisma, a weirdly gulling method to his madness, here comes . . . daddy. Daddy Roy (Roy: Roi: King) is played by James Caan at the top of his game. Once a rugged cowboy type, Caan's features have dried up with age and his neck has somehow tightened up so that he has something of the turkey buzzard to him; his eyes bulge weirdly and he's so banty with the juices of amoral machismo, he's weirdly compelling.

Roy's a murderer, we know; and Arlis, though sly, has chosen to walk the straighter path. But Roy still enjoys his powers, as if he's been hard-wired with them at the DNA level. His back a-blister with buckshot from some lurid misadventure, he needs a steady hand to pluck it out. So reluctantly, Arlis is drawn back into Roy's evil world by the intimacy of picking the lead out of his daddy's back.

The movie's final third is a kind of devil's dance toward destruction: it features two entwined couples, Arlis and Kay and Roy and Ginnie (Gwyneth Paltrow), a larcenous young woman who has fallen into Roy's mesmerizing wake. The couples in a strange way mirror each other from opposite universes as they travel together, as the tension between them escalates. Most of you will probably see the Big Revelation coming hours before it arrives, and may complain that it turns on a coincidence as big as all outdoors. But we're not in the real world, and coincidence has less weight than predestination.

In any event, the movie builds toward a spasm of intergenerational violence as father and son must confront the devils between them. The best thing about "Flesh and Bone" is the way it lingers in the mind, as if it's been burned into your retina -- or your subconscious.

"Flesh and Bone"

Starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan

Directed by Steve Kloves

Released by Paramount

Rated R


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