One of the most unique filmmakers working today, Luca Guadagnino can traverse nearly any genre on paper. The man was once known for his showy visuals, most prominently in I Am Love and Call Me By Your Name. However, each of those films featured undeniable power from the lead performers, marrying unique imagery with a stunning performance. He’s also unlocked thrillers and horror features, with A Bigger Splash and Susperia showcasing his impeccable ability to disturb the audience. Even with this versatility, Guadagnino seems obsessed with pushing the limit of his films as genre pictures. His latest, Bones and All, exudes the energy one expects of few films. Guadagnino’s confidence in the cannibal love story appears absurd on the surface. Yet his command of the material and the impeccable performances from his cast make Bones and All one of 2022’s most uncomfortable experiences.
Based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis, Bones and All tells the story of Maren (Taylor Russell), a young cannibal out on her own. After her father (André Holland) abandons her, Maren begins to realize she is not the only cannibal looking for community. Over the next week, she meets two others that will define her future. Sully (Mark Rylance) seems determined to build a pseudo-family with Maren, opening the curtain to a new world. Lee (Timothée Chalamet) offers the possibility of finding love and stability. When Lee and Maren take off across the mid-west in search of Maren’s mother, the danger of their world begins knocking on their door.
Guadagnino’s ability to frame the story through a half-dozen lenses will help Bones and All continue to gain fans for decades. The gory romance will certainly dissuade some audiences from celebrating the film, but at the same time, it opens the story to complex interpretations that will connect with many others. After all, Bones and All builds itself around a central idea: Lee and Maren do not belong, but they find family and love in each other. Few messages resonate so clearly across audiences.
However, why Lee and Maren become unwanted by the world opens up the storytelling possibility. At its heart, one can easily transfer the idea of cannibalism and violence to that of unconventional vampire lore. After all, there’s a supernatural creepiness that Guadagnino layers throughout the film. Part of this comes through the establishment of rules, so that the people-eaters can identify each other. Another comes from tapes provide by Holland to Russell. While this sidelines Holland for almost the entire film, it allows his presence to be felt. Combined with other lore established by Michael Stuhlbarg, David Gordon Green, and Chloë Sevigny, we get a complete vision of the cannibal community.
Setting the film in the 1980s and filling the world with copious amounts of blood makes it difficult to shake Bones and All as an allegory for the AIDS epidemic. The cannibalistic tendencies of its characters isolate them from the world. Many roam without family, disowned by the very people that are meant to love them out of fear. Even those who find acceptance from their family are still prone to hurt. At one point, Lee experiences homophobic slurs at the hands of his sister, despite her allyship against others in town. An LGBTQ+ storyline is made text through Lee’s actions and Guadagnino’s blocking. Combined with its midwestern setting and time period, the pieces begin to click into place.
Gaudagnino knows that the power of Bones and All cannot simply be expressed through the ideas on the page. Instead, there is considerable effort to differentiate the film as an artistic work. It stands apart from Guadagnino’s other works but pulls heavily from some of our best directors. It’s impossible to ignore Badlands as an influence, visually and storywise. Additionally, the desolation and emotion of Wim Welders’ Paris, Texas, opens the door for emotional swings throughout the story. Perhaps most essential, Guadagnino ties his film to the work of Jonathan Demme. Equal parts Silence of the Lambs and Something Wild, Bones and All loves embrace Demme’s close-up compositions to help us connect to our protagonists. As we fall in love with our young couple, the film pushes them to become an instantly iconic tale of love on the run.
Dominating the film is the livewire performances from Russell, Chalamet, and especially Rylance. Russell builds on her already impressive performance from Waves, showing she’s more than capable of leading a film full of stars. Her ability to physically showcase longing, not only for her place in her subculture but in simple relationships, makes her incredibly captivating. At the same time, she uniquely telegraphs her fear of physical and emotional pain. Every gesure, look, and emotion feels wholly unique for an actress that has already shown us so much.
Meanwhile, Chalamet and Rylance play different kinds of intensity. While Chalamet believes he’s found his path, he finds himself at odds with the actions he’s taken in life. It’s a nuanced and subtle performance that once again showcases a unique side of the young actor. Meanwhile, Rylance chills in his otherworldly performance. Since his Oscar win for Bridge of Spies, Rylance has consistently played odd and unusual characters with skill. Yet his Sully is among his most menanacing and upsetting performances to date. He is both master and wildcard, portraying a uniquely unnerving vision of this world. He delivers mountains of expositions, but it rarely feels like that’s his goal. Instead, it’s a vision of pure horror, and deserves to be recognized as one of the great performances of his career.
Finally, the rest of the crew puts together a dynamite achievement in terms of visual storytelling. It does not surprise anyone that a film about cannibals might be upsetting. However, the gallons of blood and gore will chill many viewers. Cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan strikes a balance between the bright red and maroon color palette of the violence, and the dreamlike experience of following two kids on a road trip. His ability to match color palettes in each scenario helps sell upsetting images. Just as integral to Bones and All is a score that stands out as among the most haunting of the year, and the most romantic. Leave it to none other than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to accomplish such a feat. They do not stop at the score, but also compose a heartbreaking ballad that is sure to stick with you at the end of the film. Combined with the excellent soundtrack, featuring Joy Division, Duran Duran, and Leonard Cohen, come to Bones and All for some of the year’s best music.
Simply put, the combination of violence, love, and outstanding performances helps Bones and All stand out as an instant classic. It’s combination of small town vibes, with a big picture vision of the era makes Bones and All another masterpiece from Guadagnino. Sometimes it feels like a film is made for you, and Bones and All is one of those for this critic. However, it seems likely this one is destined to be loved for a long long time.