Bones and All is now in theaters.
Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All is lush, romantic, and brutal. A cannibal road trip movie that fleshes out its mythology akin to vampires or werewolves, it’s a poetic piece of American Gothic horror with unexpected turns rooted in rigorous character drama. Led by stellar performances from, among others, Taylor Russell, Timothée Chalamet, and Mark Rylance, it feels fully lived-in even in its most languid moments, resulting in a work that’s both sweeter and funnier than you’d expect, but no less heart-wrenching.
It begins unassumingly in Virginia in the 1980s, where mixed-race teenage newcomer Maren (Russell) acclimates to her new school and to her wealthier white friends, despite attempts from her father, Frank (André Holland), to keep her sheltered. His reasons become all too clear when Maren sneaks out to a sleepover and, during a moment of physical and emotional intimacy with her classmate, gets carried away and takes a bite out of her finger. When she returns home covered in blood, Frank’s lack of surprise (and the quickness and routineness with which he has her pack up and leave) tells us this has happened before.
It’s also the last straw. A few months after they move to Maryland under new identities, he reluctantly abandons Maren in the middle of the night, leaving her with nothing more than her birth certificate — which contains scant details about her estranged mother, who she barely remembers — and a Walkman with a cassette tape explaining his actions, and revealing parts of her bloodthirsty past he’d long kept hidden. Unable to listen to it all at once, she digests his audio confession in increments on the road while taking buses and hitching rides in the hopes of tracking her mother down and finding answers about herself.
This journey, its meetings, and its pitstops serve as a proxy for a tale of self-discovery, one punctuated by the same kind of loneliness and romance Guadagnino brought to Call Me By Your Name. It’s also rife with simmering feelings of queer self-hatred, with an obvious but effective parallel with the movie’s version of cannibalism — or “eaters” — for whom consumption and indulgence can be marked by shame. Guadagnino first taps into these feelings when Maren briefly crosses paths with an eccentric cannibal named Sully (Rylance), who sports a ponytail under a feathered hat, refers to himself in third person, and sniffs our young runaway protagonist from half a mile away. Eaters have a keen sense of smell, we learn from Sully, who not only teaches Maren some of the basics of “their” kind, but functions as a specter of a lonely future, a sort of queer-elder who’s seen the worst of what the world has to sacrifice, and wants to prepare Maren for a life of survival in isolation.
Despite the bloodshed occurring mostly off-screen, there’s a sense of ritualism to eating human flesh — not in a cultural or even occult sense, but as an act of intimacy between two people (whether two eaters, or an eater and the eaten). However, the cannibalism lore takes a backseat when Maren crosses paths with Lee (Chalamet), a young, brooding twentysomething straggler with an apparent moral code, and a semblance of remaining connection to his family (a rarity for eaters). He’s gaunt and awkward, with the kind of quiet disposition a teen like Maren might find mysterious, but there’s something obviously despondent about him too — between this and Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino has perfected the art of using Chalamet to create Sadboi cinema — and the characters’ personal dynamic offers the movie a sense of novel calm, at least for a moment. Fittingly, a key scene for Lee and Maren’s understanding of other eaters (and of themselves) takes the form of a revelatory fireside chat with a character played by Michael Stuhlbarg. However, it’s the emotional antonym of its equivalent in Call Me By Your Name, creating tension and unease rather than comfort.
As Maren and Lee make their way across the US, Guadagnino and cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan paint each location with a tangible texture, using celluloid to capture both atmospheric warmth and emotional mystery in the air. They even play tricks with exposure for handfuls of frames, during moments where vivid memories briefly invade the characters’ consciousness, as if to root their troubling thoughts in physical sensations, burned onto the film. All the while, composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross play with mischievous, haunting tones, with each stretched, individual guitar note practically anticipating the next one, as if it were reaching out through the lonely silences between them — until that silence becomes filled with an ethereal melody. It’s the sound of falling in love, but it’s ever so mournful too, as if Maren and Lee’s romance isn’t long for this world for one reason or another.
Some of the movie’s zigs and zags may not feel entirely in tune with its listlessness — one late turn in particular, while shockingly visceral, works to make its silent, lingering horrors a bit too overt — but there are rarely moments when Bones and All doesn’t don’t feel engrossing. Guadagnino wields sorrow not as an affect, but as a fabric, one that ripples with the weight of the past even before it’s fully rediscovered, resulting in a film where love feels as much like a burden as it does liberation.