Bones and All
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by David Kajganich, based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis
Starring Taylor Russell, Timothée Chalamet and Mark Rylance
Classification R; 128 minutes
Opens in theatres Nov. 23
You have to applaud the marketing brio required to release a coming-of-age cannibalism drama over the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday. After stuffing yourself with stuffing, come watch as Luca Guadagnino’s fine young cannibals tear into each other and others with an insatiability that grandma would certainly not approve of. Although it is fair to say that Bones and All never attempts to misrepresent itself: Its finger-lickin’ sensibility reveals itself within the film’s first five gorgeously gruesome minutes.
That is when the teenage Maren (Taylor Russell), invited to a new friend’s sleepover in 1988 Middle America, commits an act of shocking, seemingly instinctual violence. When she returns to her trailer-park home in distress and tears, her shirt soiled and her father (André Holland) upset but not exactly surprised at the circumstances, Bones and All puts its chewed-up cards on the table, if not its central metaphor. The emotionally damaged Maren, who certainly doesn’t want to hurt anybody, could be read as a character dealing with her own burgeoning sexuality. Or perhaps someone managing an unmanageable addiction. Or simply plagued by a misunderstood otherness that is rank and vile to the rest of the world.
The exact allegory that Guadagnino may or may not have in mind here doesn’t matter so much as how the intensely playful filmmaker conveys it on-screen. And just as in the director’s best-known works – A Bigger Splash, Call Me By Your Name, his gonzo remake of Suspiria – themes are in constant service of style. Lucky for us, Bones and All is beautiful and unhinged all in the same bite.
After Maren’s father breaks down and abandons her – leaving his daughter only her birth certificate and a cassette tape full of traumatizing backstory that is played sporadically throughout the film – the teen girl crisscrosses America by bus, rather quickly coming into contact with other lonely “eaters.” (They can smell each other, turns out – a narrative convenience that Guadagnino and his frequent screenwriter David Kajganich appreciatively treat as matter-of-fact in their world-building.)
After a creepy-even-for-a-cannibal encounter with the drifter Sully (Mark Rylance, pushing his wispy dweeb act from Don’t Look Up to deliciously perverse heights), Maren finds companionship, and maybe more, with Lee (Timothée Chalamet). Together, the two inch closer to both one another and their true selves, to the point where it seems that even two eaters can live a life more or less ordinary.
Frightening and romantic, dreamy and dreary, the film laces the gore of a zombie movie with the magic-hour sunsets of a Terrence Malick film, plus a healthy amount of 1980s needle-drops. It is, in so many ways, one of the most unusually beautiful and violently sensual films in recent memory – decidedly rougher and less polished in its sex than Call Me By Your Name, but with as much pounding, beating, bloody heart.
Guadagnino is also not above having fun with his own filmography. It is one thing to have Chalamet brazenly challenge the expectations and appetites of his obsessive Call Me By Your Name fanbase, quite another for Guadagnino to further pervert his breakthrough film’s reputation by having Chalamet’s on-screen CMBYN father Michael Stuhlbarg pop up here playing a greasy eater eager to darken Lee’s moral code.
While Chalamet plays the brooding dirt-bag well, the film is completely Russell’s show. And the Canadian actor pulls off the same trick that she was able to manage in 2019′s Waves: Asked to play damaged and withdrawn, she delivers a character of depth and warmth. She makes the unapproachable understandable, even if that requires moments of evisceration more typically associated with George A. Romero films.
Or maybe it is Claire Denis’s body-horror romance of Trouble Every Day that Guadagnino is channelling here. Or Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire-outsider western Near Dark? Andrea Arnold’s poverty-porn poetry in American Honey? The choices are vast and entrancing, gorgeous and revolting. And even though it suffers an ending that is all misplaced guts, no narrative glory, Bones and All makes a true meal of itself.