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Little House on the Prairie

Flesh and Bone

Written and directed by Steve Klove; Produced by Mark Rosenberg and Paula Weinstein; Paramount Pictures

If your father is a murderer, are you? This is the odd question posed in "Flesh and Bone," an disturbing and perplexing movie about one man's unusual struggle to rid himself of his father's blood.

Roy Sweeney (James Caan) is a Fagan-like character, who uses his young Oliveresque son Arlis (played by Jerry Swindall as a child and by Dennis Quaid as an adult) to break into and steal from people's homes. The scheme is this: a family finds a mute, apparently lost child on its doorstep one day, and takes him in. While asleep, the young Arlis creeps downstairs to let his father in, and together, they loot the house, sneaking off into the night.

The movie begins with a prologue set thirty years ago in a large farmhouse in Texas; the scheme is underway, when the owner of the victimized house wakes and investigates the noise the two thieves are making. Fearing capture, Roy kills the father with his gun--then the wife, then their young son in a jolting opening scene. As Roy and Arlis leave the slaughter, the crying of the baby Roy has spared pierces the night air from its crib.

Thirty years later, the now much older Arlis Sweeney still hears the crying of that baby in his nightmares. Arlis deals novelty vending machines in Texas, travelling from site to site in his pickup and sleeping in road-side motels. Fate brings him together wit a runaway housewife, Kay Davies (Meg Ryan), with whom he eventually falls in love and takes on as a travelling-companion and lover. It is only when he discovers that Kay is that baby whose family his father slaughtered so long ago that the entire gravitas of the situation propels the story crazily forward.

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Arlis' father re-enters the scene randomly after many years away, and Arlis himself undergoes a series of melodramatic crises: how can he every really deserve her love, after what his father did to her? Will he let Roy "finish loose ends" with her? Is he fated to follow the footsteps of his father, against his own will?

Quaid plays the role with an intense restraint and pained disposition which conveys the total psychological damage done to him by his father, and his own personal battle to distinguish himself from Roy's actions. Meg Ryan as Kay Davies is the focus of the father-son struggle, and remains a simplistic character completely oblivious to what is happening around her. Her sparkling wide-eyed stare and innocent dialogue provide an effective counterweight to the heavy dynamic of the plot which revolves around her.

James Caan's performance is calm on the outside but seething with wickedness. Where the plot provides no motive for his actions, Caan tells us through his acting--he is evil and he will get what he wants.

In a movie with such a mainstream big-name cast, there can only be one happy ending to please the mass market; it is predictable from an early stage and ultimately undermines the suspense which the movie attempts to build. Director and writer Steve Kloves stocks "Flesh and Bone" full of haunting symbolism and foreboding action, seeking to tell a moralistic epic in small-county Texas; what results is sometimes nonsensical and contrived. He is much more successful at creating a broad clash in contrasting the panoramic vastness of the Texan horizon with the narrowness with which Arlis views his life's path.

"Flesh and Bone" marks an attempt by Hollywood to match the unconventionality of smaller independent filmmakers, but ultimately comes back to the median preference for sappy melodrama and comforting, predictable resolutions. As Arlis says: "I don't like surprises--period!"

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