Wild Bones opens with Fay (Roxy Bugler), and makes it clear that we are not just in her isolated environment – a remote stone cottage on the coast during winter – but also in her addled headspace.
To the sonic accompaniment of the wind howling outside and Ross Oliver’s ritualistic percussive score (think Toru Takemitsu, only more industrial), we see Fay in various postures of alienation: first silhouetted against a bare stone window, and then freaking, hyperventilating, yelling, writhing and twisting her body into unnatural contortions as though possessed, even as outside a figure, also seen in silhouette, stands smoking.
When Fay’s peculiar dance is interrupted by a phone call from her younger half sister Alice (Mary Roubos) reporting that a house has been left for them by their father, Fay responds, “Have you spoken to Dad?”, apparently refusing, much to Alice’s consternation, to accept that their father has died. Although he has passed recently, he disappeared from Fay’s life when she was still a child, and she has never recovered from her sense of abandonment. Meanwhile she is still haunted by his ghost (Gareth Haynes) whose face is ever obscured by shadow as he smokes with blackened hands. Arrested, dislocated Fay is a daddy’s girl through and through, and her father has remained an absent presence in her otherwise lonely life.
When Alice and her ingratiating friend Gary (Tom Cray) come to visit Fay, and propose, despite the snow, going for a walk along the beach, Fay will decline, observing, “The sea makes it look like the earth’s been cut open – it’s like an enormous wound that won’t heal.” Aside from introducing an awkwardness that pervades her every interaction with others, these words are clearly Freudian, betraying a trauma that is of a personal as much as a geographic variety – and the rest of Wild Bones, written and directed Jack James (Malady, 2015), will not so much get to the bottom of this family mystery as further obfuscate it, filtering the question of who abused Fay – and how – through her own deeply unreliable perspective. Certainly Fay blames her estranged mother Candace (Liz Farahadi) for the cigarette burn scars on her arms and for other, more insidious kinds of harm done to her person – but the viewer is left to wonder whether the father whom Fay adores and idealises, but who was also said to have been “a violent man”, may have contributed greater damage to her body and psyche.
Pitched somewhere between Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came From The Sea (1976), Wild Bones offer a highly subjectified inside view on a young woman’s profound sense of dissociation, and tracks her confrontations with her parents and with a past that remains a blur. “Underneath the skin is the truth,” Fay will tell Gary, citing her father. “No protection, just the truth. That’s all skin is. Nothing stopping us seeing what’s inside of each other.” With its visuals as fractured as Fay’s identity, this most introspective of films will eventually take a peek beneath Fay’s epidermis at the wild bones beneath, exposing the ugly wounds of mental illness.
Wild Bones is an extreme yet intimate portrait of psychological scars and self-effacement, with a heroine whose Electra complex has so dominated her life that the only place her true self can come out is in her father’s house. So while it may be presented in a mode of modern gothic, ultimately James’ disorienting film is a classic tragedy, unfolding in more than one domestic sphere and ending in blood – which here really is thicker than water. Bugler holds everything together with a performance as alarming as it is sympathetic.
Strap: Jack James’ psychodrama is a manically disorienting, dissociative dance around domestic dysfunction, deep trauma and daddy absent (but ever-present).
© Anton Bitel