Bone September 1, 2022
Joyce Van Patten
1 Hr., 35 Mins.
n typical fashion for writer-director Larry Cohen, Bone (1972) is as prone to incisiveness as feeling like it’s going to fly off the rails and fall apart. Flecked with jerky nonsequiturs and observations awkwardly tumbling out like word vomit, Cohen’s eccentric way with dialogue makes you waver between thinking people would never speak as strangely as these characters do and thinking that this is exactly how most people, neurotic
and insecure, talk. But Bone’s consistent sense of instability — a distrust (which turns out to be largely unfounded) whether Cohen can make full a provocative idea or ultimately miss his target— keeps you gripped, like you were expecting a train crash and waiting for it finally to happen.
It works nicely in tandem, too, with a narrative also marked by unsteadiness, if more purposely. This often very funny film begins in 1970, in Beverly Hills, at the mansion-accenting poolside of Bill and Bernadette (Andrew Duggan and Joyce Van Patten), a profoundly unhappy middle-aged couple. Their afternoon lounging is ruined when, while taking a dip, Bill notices a rat stuck — and still squirming — in the filtering system. Bernadette isn’t satisfied just scooping the rodent out and doing some hand washing: she wants the whole pool emptied and scrubbed, even though Bill notes the chlorine will do a good enough cleaning job.
Before any calls can be made either to their pool company or the closest exterminator, almost out of nowhere appears a man we will know only as Bone (Yaphet Kotto). The wealthy white couple immediately assumes this friendly Black man is with some kind of extermination company, an inference prolonged after he willingly does the rat-rescue job both Bill and Bernadette had been too squeamish to perform themselves. Then it’s clear, after he goes inside to collect his tip, that that was just a front for his real intentions, which are to rob and rape. But when Bone does some digging around while the couple cowers and notices seemingly endless piles of unpaid bills, he changes up his presumable modus operandi. Bill will head to the bank to pick up all the remaining cash in his name. If he’s not back within an hour, Bone will rape Bernadette.
But everyone in this trio — played wonderfully, and with a firm handle on Cohen’s erratic dialogue, by these actors — gets distracted. After his stop by the bank, Bill follows the skirt of a loquacious young shoplifter (an excellent Jeannie Berlin) he meets and hits it off with whose interest in him, after he goes to her place, turns out to be rooted in a childhood trauma. And Bone and Bernadette start actually enjoying each other’s company. Their rapport turns romantic — The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)-esque — once far more than an hour passes.
The movie’s deadly, almost surreal ending implicitly offers the possibility that the increasingly sympathetic Bone might not ever have existed — more a figment of the couple’s collective imagination onto which they can project racist fantasies and also use as a springboard from which they can for once directly interrogate their mutual, but long-repressed, disgust for each other. It’s a twist that takes this movie of shifting power dynamics and contempt for the bourgeoisie’s materialism and self-interest-dependent liberalism to another level. Dark comedies about middle-class malaise aren’t hard to come by. But none operate at the kooky-witty, bizarre-adjacent pitch that’s all Cohen’s own. Kicking off what would become a truly bold, singular directing career, Bone is among Cohen’s most essential. A-