The basic story of Bone is simple: a rich couple deals with a home invasion. But this movie has Larry Cohen at the helm, so it’s going to be anything but basic. The man who is there to take them for everything soon learns that the couple is anything but rich. And they’re anything but happy.
Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten, St. Elmo’s Fire, Grown Ups) and Bill (Andrew Duggan, In Like Flint, It Lives Again) are a seemingly rich Beverly Hills couple. Bill’s a used car salesman who feels that he’s the only one working hard, symbolized by his wife refusing to even getting up to answer the phone while he cleans the pool. Then, a rat gets stuck in the drain. That’s what brings Bone (Yaphet Kotto, Alien, Live and Let Die) into their lives.
Mistaking him for an exterminator, they ask him to pull the rat out. He does and instead of hiding it from them, he confronts them with it. He then takes them hostage as he goes through their home looking for money.
It turns out that the couple has little in liquid assets and is deeply in debt. Their son may be in Vietnam or he may be in jail. And it turns out Bill has a secret bank account that Bernadette knows nothing about. Bone commands him to clean out that account and bring him the money in an hour or he’ll rape and kill his wife.
Bill ends up taking his time as he realizes how little he loves his wife. He drinks with a lady (Brett Sommers from TV’s Match Game) that explains how her husband died from too many dental x-rays. Soon, he’s been seduced by a young girl (Elaine May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin, The Heartbreak Kid, Inherent Vice) who steals from the system, attracted to her offbeat ways and youthful spirit.
He comes home without the money. But meanwhile, after learning how to make eggs — she doesn’t cook anymore — Bernadette and Bone have gotten drunk and ended up on the couch together. He explains to her how raping white women and the black mystique used to take him so far, but today, black and white love is commonplace. What started as him continually saying he was going to rape her has turned and she begins to seduce him, kissing him and “doing all the work.” He talks about how black men have troubles now making love and she tells him that it’s not just black men.
After they bond, Bernadette tries to convince Bone to help her murder Bill for his insurance. They ride the bus to the end of the line, then chase Bill to the beach. He tries to win them over with a used car pitch to keep him alive, Bernadette smothers and kills him. Bone realizes that he wants nothing to do with this life and leaves.
On Cohen’s website, the characters in this film are broken down by how they relate to the world: Bill is The Establishment who may be open to change. Bernadette is liberation and feminism that has been held down. The X-Ray Lady is the real Establishment, the old guard ready to die off. The Girl is the hippy love generation already giving way to the darkness of the 70’s. Then there’s Bone — facing racism but willing to play with it to get what he wants, as he says, “I’m just a big bad buck, ready to do what’s expected of him.” He even talks about how he’s held onto the past, enjoying his part of the world of racism because it was easier and there was a role. Now, in this new world, he doesn’t know who to be.
The character work in this film is superb. Witness the scene where the girl explains to Bill how she was raped as a child and that’s why she’s attracted to old men like him. Even when he tries to connect with her by telling her about the Street & Smith pulps he bought as a kid, she still tries to connect him to the rapist who took her virginity as she begins to make love to him.
If I didn’t say it yet, Yaphet Kotto is fucking amazing in this movie. His performance is quite literally a tour de force. He’s always great in everything he’s in, but in this film, he’s transcendent. I also love that he borrowed Cohen’s red sweater for a scene late in the movie and never returned it.
Amazingly, this was Cohen’s first film. It’s assured and poised, straddling the line between art film and exploitation.