After having worked together on 2017’s Call Me By Your Name Luca Guadagnino and Timothee Chalamet pair up once more for Bones and All. Both movies tell the story of outcast lovers trying to find their place in the world. Both movies take place during the 1980s and are shot immaculately against stunning but different backdrops. Another difference is that in Call Me By Your Name, the central characters have an affinity for peaches, while in Bones and All, the protagonists feast on human flesh.
Bones and All, based on the YA novel by Camille De Angelis, begins when newcomer Maren (Taylor Russell) is invited to a sleepover by her classmates. What seems like a typical girls’ night takes a turn for the worse when Maren tries to satiate her desire for human flesh by chomping on one of the girl’s fingers. Maren rushes back home, where her father (Andre Holland) greets his blood-soaked daughter and initiates an escape plan he is all too familiar with. Upon arriving at a new location, Maren’s father leaves her, unable to continue handling his daughter’s cannibalistic tendencies. Maren is left by herself with only a tape recorder and some clues that could help her find her mother.
What ensues is a road trip where Maren looks to reunite with the mother (Chloe Sevigny) she never knew. Along the way, she meets members of the cannibal community that are able to identify themselves by smell. Sully (Mark Rylance) is a pony-tailed “eater” who teaches Maren useful skills and tries to form a familial bond with his apprentice. After sharing a meal, Maren decides against forming a partnership with Sully and continues on alone, much to his dismay.
With her newly learned skill of being able to smell out others like her, she meets Lee (Timothee Chalamet). Unlike Sully, Lee is cool, hip, young, good-looking, and has a different set of rules he lives by. The two decide to take the road trip together, eventually falling in love.
The Romanticism in Bones and All is strong. It is stunningly beautiful and horrifyingly macabre. It is filled with as many allegories and metaphors as it is with blood and guts. Somewhere along this trip of self-discovery, however, the film gets lost and never quite arrives at its destination, begging the question if Guadagnino ever knew where he wanted to go in the first place. The metaphors for cannibalism are discreet: addiction, parental issues, and sexual identity are suggestions for what these may be. The violence, although infrequent, is not discreet at all. As graphic as it is, it also comes across as slightly comedic, understating the tragic nature of the story. Watching otherwise pitiful and relatable characters rip the flesh off the recently deceased threatens to make the characters unsympathetic, even as we learn of their lamentable backstories.
Much like its hungry duo, the movie meanders, plodding along and struggling to deliver a definitive explanation of what it is all about. There is never any explanation of where the cannibalistic tendencies come from. Is it hereditary? Is it observed and learned? Is it just as natural for them as for non-cannibals to enjoy fresh fish? Does having the characters be cannibals serve the story any purpose? The movie leaves the audience to figure it out for themselves, but it becomes difficult to reach a conclusion with all the distracting crunching and slurping.
Much is left to be desired about what could have been a masterpiece. What is brilliant, however, are the pictures (courtesy of cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan), the music (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), and the acting. Khachaturan offers warm colors and expansive views filming the mid-western landscape. Reznor and Ross offer a sincere and intimate score, including a song that perhaps says more about the movie than the movie itself. The actors are also at the top of their game. Chalamet is excellent at playing the suave Lee with panache. As his performance progresses, he slowly peels back layers of confidence to reveal a deeply troubled individual grappling with his past. Rylance plays Sully with a sinister innocence; both sympathetic and abhorrent, his presence, for better or for worse, lingers like the smell of vinegar. Andre Holland also looms mostly via narration, offering descriptions of cannibalism even more graphic and disturbing than the images on the screen. Rounding out the cast of depravity are Michael Stuhlbarg and David Gordon Green (in a rare on-screen sighting) playing a southern pair of weirdos and Chloe Sevigny, who offers 3 minutes of pure horror.
Earning her spot on the list of Hollywood’s rising stars is Taylor Russell. Her performance is quiet yet powerful. Maren is a girl caught between her intense desires and how these are at odds with her morality. She struggles to find her place and her peace, ultimately finding comfort alongside Lee and helping him overcome his demons in the process. Maren is a beautiful character, and Russell more than does her justice. It would not be a surprise if her name is mentioned during award season.
It is unfortunate that a relatable story about self-discovery, seeking acceptance, and love is drowned out by gallons of blood and guts and by decibels of munching and slurping that serve no purpose other than as blurry metaphors. The story, characters, and audiences would have been better served without the cannibalism gimmick. Along with a plodding pace and meandering plot, Bones and All falls short of being an instant classic from Luca Guadagnino.