I don’t know what’s in the water in Atlantic Canada, but more filmmakers need to drink it up. The Nova Scotian drama Bone Cage opens on the heels of Newfie Black Conflux. These debut features are both strong in their own rights. Taken together, however, and maybe with a dash of Murmur, which debuted at festivals alongside Black Conflux, and there’s good reason to look to the Maritimes. This fresh crop of films echoes what’s happening among Toronto’s new generation. Here’s a group of exciting new talents demanding cinephiles to take notice. These films are bold works that mark talents to watch. This generation of filmmakers is doing more with less—although one hopes that Canada throws more money at them before Hollywood does—and offering the sort of bold and revitalising work that’s worth writing about.
Admittedly, Black Conflux probably gets the “best in show” vote, but it’s in good company with Bone Cage. This film is a messier around the edges, but chaos is part of its design. However, writer/director Taylor Olson laudably pulls triple duty by also playing the lead role. That’s no easy feat, but he excels wearing all three hats. This stripped and raw portrait of life in rural Nova Scotia displays remarkable synergy for the emerging auteur’s juggling act. Bone Cage comes together with fearless intensity as the camera closes in tight on Olson’s gutsy performance. The dizzying handheld cinematography by Kevin A. Fraser (I Am Syd Stone, which also has the Maritimes in its blood) seems charged by a gravitational pull to Olson’s performance. The dance between the camera and the director/writer/star is doubly impressive for the palpable creative spark that connects the players on both sides of the camera.
Work Hard, Play Hard
The dramatic intensity of Bone Cage bears influence from the likes of Breaking the Waves and Rachel Getting Married. Those comparisons may risk overselling it, but Olson’s maplecore aesthetic invites too much indebtedness to these brushstrokes to ignore. Rather than seem derivative, though, the performance-driven minimalism shows that a script, actors, and a camera go a long way.
Perhaps the hangover from Breaking and Rachel occurs because Cage features a wedding that makes their nuptials resemble well-ordered cheer. Bone Cage ends with a wedding, but it’s definitely a tragedy. The wedding actually invites a form of divorce for Olson’s Jamie. Namely, he can’t reconcile the life he wants with the one to which he’s committed. Jamie, who operates a wood processor, doesn’t fall too far from the tree of rural living. He works hard and plays hard. The physical labour and loneliness on the job take their toll. Meanwhile, unwinding after work only drives the tailspin further, as Jamie and his friend Kevin (Sam Vigneault) can barely stand before the night is done.
His dad (Christian Murray) coasts through life like a detached automaton, fixated on resurrecting the son he lost years before. Jamie’s sister, Chicky (Amy Groening in an outstanding scene-stealing performance that earned a Canadian Screen Award nomination), is the voice of reason in his family, but also an anchor. Jamie knows that leaving her to deal with their mess of a family is simply unfair. However, Chicky clings to a life that’s long escaped her. The relationships that keep her grounded in Nova Scotia are merely fantasies.
Roots and Wreckage
Each day after work, Jamie surveys the woodlands devastated by his machine. He combs through the wreckage looking for animals he can save. The burden of making his livelihood at the expense of the land that holds his roots weighs heavily. Olson makes this apparent as Jamie tends to a falcon that he houses in a cage. It won’t eat and barely has room to flap its wings. Jamie and the bird are one and he knows it: staying in this place will kill him.
As Jamie navigates the options of breaking away and staying grounded, he finds himself pulled by opposite forces. His fiancé, Krista (Ursula Calder), promises stability if he stays. She’s also saving herself for marriage. The lusty energy between them is so electric that their desire to marry becomes clear. It’s a terrible option, mind you, since they both face dead-end jobs in a dying economy. But Calder is to Olson what Olson is to Fraser’s camera. Bone Cage is a film composed of richly charged magnets. The two leads lock heads frequently in the film and the camera gets intimately close. The invasion of personal space shakes free the film’s theatrical origins, too. Based on Catherine Banks’ play, Bone Cage is always cinematic and never stagey. It’s turbo-charged with emotional immediacy as the camera zeroes in on the raw magnetism that keeps the couple together. Packing up and leaving is never easy when there’s a spark like this one.
Scratching Werewolf‘s Itch
As Bone Cage hurtles towards its unexpected conclusion, Olson intricately connects the characters’ psyches with their surroundings. As with Black Conflux, Bone Cage has a terrific sense of place and harnesses the pull of the natural landscape. In this case, the devastation caused by human activity makes the scarred woodlands doubly allegorical. The film connects with a quintessentially Canadian dilemma that’s fuelled many Canadian films since Pete and Joey left Nova Scotia in Goin’ Down the Road: the prospect that life will be better elsewhere.
However, Bone Cage, like many of its contemporaries, proudly owns its roots. The land has no shortage of stories to tell or artists to pull us eastward. While Bone Cage shows promise within the Maritime wave, the film to which it most invites comparison is Werewolf. Bone Cage answers the call howled by Ashley Mackenzie’s Werewolf some years before. Like Werewolf, this film is a raw, intense, and disquieting odyssey. It doesn’t always work and there are times when the emotions run so high that it’s downright exasperating. However, no matter how messy, chaotic, or emotionally exhausting a film may be, it’s always exciting to recognize an authentic voice behind the camera.
Bone Cage opens in digital release July 6.