Luca Guadagnino is quite an interesting filmmaker, to put it mildly. His career spans decades, but for the purposes of this review, it’s important to note that he directed Call Me By Your Name, starring Timothée Chalamet and America’s favorite son, Armie Hammer. That was a tender portrait of young, Queer love that doubled as both a time capsule and a timeless defense of the marginalized. Who knew Guadagnino would be making a very different romance just five years later? One that casts Chalamet once again, this time as a cannibalistic derelict. I’m certain that Timothée’s former co-star, Armie, was seething that he wasn’t offered this role; it must be eating him up inside to this very day.
However, in Bones and All, the real inner turmoil lies in Maren (Taylor Russell). A young, meek, and a seemingly innocent young woman who leads a life on the run with her father, Frank (André Holland), due to a deadly condition. Her mother isn’t in the picture for unclear reasons, and it would be an understatement to say the family travels light. They go from city to city, state to state, desperately trying to find a permanent home. Why? Maren is a ticking time bomb – she’s been a cannibal since she was a toddler, and it’s implied to be a hereditary affliction. Maren wants to feel normal, but eventually, we know the craving will become too much, dashing her hopes for tranquility. Even sleepovers are no bueno.
Holland is great here. His deep timber and concise dialogue speak volumes without saying too much. He wears the toll this life has taken on his face, and you can hear it in his voice. When he tells Maren to take whatever she can grab in three minutes so that they can go on the run again, it feels as hopeless a situation as a parent can be in. His dynamic with Russell feels similar to the premise of Let the Right One In (2008) and its remake, Let Me In (2010). A weary caretaker, shepherding over an isolated and treacherous vampire.. er, or in this case, a cannibal. They both want human flesh. It’s all the same. But Maren’s unnatural desires lead her on a path of self-discovery, both about her lineage and her sense of self. This causes her to encounter two individuals that’ll change her life forever.
What Guadagnino has crafted with his film is an intoxicating mood piece. The contrast of the cinematography, the deep shadows that help illuminate its litany of characters, and a steady camera that feels like it’s eavesdropping on moments too private for our eyes help visualize what is essentially a Gothic tale of romance. The film has sold itself on that imagery and the connection between the two leads. Unfortunately, where Bones and All begins to lose the casual viewership, the reason for its disappointing box office performance is that it’s so damn weird. The film’s host of cackling, grinning, creepy, monologue-spouting characters is perhaps too off-putting for the general audience. There’s a multitude of bodily fluids on display, not all of which you would expect. The long takes and neverending conversations give Pearl a run for its money for the most indulgent scene of the year.
The movie is best described as an acquired taste, one that might be downright offensive to some viewers. But that’s OK. Not every piece of art is for everybody. What I appreciate about the film is that despite the warts, or the grotesque content, it’s always arresting. This is notable because if you were to put this premise on paper, it would probably seem like you could get no more than 80 – 90 minutes of movie out of it. It’s an accomplishment that Bones and All is as interesting and intriguing as it proves to be, and it speaks to what the movie demonstrates about human nature and the structure of good stories. Consider that many successful stories rely on one of two points of conflict – a community under attack or a group of people attempting to build a community. Go over whatever catalog of movies you’d like, and you’ll find a plethora of films that share this trait.
Bones and All files under the latter group. An underbelly of society trying to find family, find a home and become a part of something familiar rather than always feeling like an outcast. Isn’t that the type of found family outcasts is always hoping to discover? This subtext is first introduced when Maren, alone at night, encounters a dark and mysterious figure. It’s a tense, nearly silent scene but one that reveals a lot about both characters in a short amount of time, foreshadowing the bonds and conflicts we’re going to see play out. It’s worth noting that typically in a scene like this, we’d be worried for the young woman’s safety. However, we don’t yet know who’s more dangerous – him or her.
This encounter also ingratiates us with… I don’t know, the mythology and world-building of cannibalism? The way these people identify themselves, they recognize each other before anyone speaks a word. Another interesting tenet is revealed – the agreement that cannibals don’t eat other cannibals. If only the Sith had this level of basic foresight to protect your own ass, but common sense isn’t always common. Through these cultural experiences, Maren begins to hope that a healthy fraternity will provide shelter. This accelerates her awakening – she’ll have to determine if a community built on cannibalism is sustainable and worth building, or is it still just a pitfall of humankind, a defect of our design? One critical scene shakes her to the core, as she realizes there are people out there who don’t suffer from the condition yet still want to participate in the lifestyle out of perverted fascination. It makes her question if this culture attracts the worst aspects of humanity.
The character goes through a maelstrom of feelings and moods. Her breaking point is perhaps when she has a face full of snot during a particularly emotional conversation. This woman is DOWN BAD for much of this movie. This type of performance could easily venture into schadenfreude, but Taylor Russell is so adept here that her Maren has dignity and draws our empathy. Russell has had quite a few notable credits, such as Escape Room (2019) and the underseen Waves (2019). But this is the first time it seems like she has full autonomy to showcase her persona. Her characters typically have tenderness and kindness mixed with surprising amounts of earnestness, ingenuity, and charisma. For example, she briefly argues with a clerk that feels that she’s too young to be traveling… until she, on a dime, sheds the shy persona and announces her independence. “I’m 18!” she says confidently, and she’ll travel to whatever the hell she likes. Is the shyness a means to force people to let their guard down, or is it genuine, and she knows exactly when to abandon it in order to stand up for herself? It could be either or both, but all options converge to make Maren a fascinating character.
Speaking of fascinating, Timothée Chalamet turns the film on its axis. The best characters change the mood of a movie. Lee (Chalamet) does so with a magnetic coolness that flips the temperature from a cold and tense thriller to almost a teen comedy. You can feel the film’s DNA recalibrate in a multitude of ways as Lee and Maren have an eventful encounter in a convenience store. Later, his rendition of Lick It Up would fit just as easily in some quirky, coming-of-age drama. Maren and Lee are instantly fascinated with each other, but their journey together feels like a snapshot rather than something that can last. They’re a yin and yang of personalities. Maren brings empathy, and Lee demands your attention.
But I guarantee you that no one does a better job of grabbing your ears and eyeballs than Sully (Mark Rylance), an experienced cannibal with an almost mythic reputation. I struggle to find the words to even describe this performance. The best I can define it is to say at different points of this movie, and II wondered if Rylance deserved an Academy Award nomination… or a Razzie. To be safe, he should probably get shut out from consideration for both honors. Remember when I talked about how weird this movie is? Yeah, Rylance is responsible for at least a third of that, if not more. I don’t know what accent he’s doing. He has some of the silliest lines and stutters (“A dou dou dou dou dou double take!”), and he has the energy of a sex offender. He seems like the type of goofball you’d see in an episode of American Dad. Yet, whenever he’s on-screen… it’s captivating. He’s a creepy bastard, but Bones and All wouldn’t be nearly as unsettling without him.
Ditto for the film’s score, which sounds like it’s slowly killing people. That’s useful for the movie’s tension, especially during the non-violent parts of the story. Maren, to her credit, goes a long time without indulging her craving. The film has a motif: Maren listens to a tape recording that explains who and what she is, but only when she travels. It’s almost as if she’s documenting her sobriety with each stop. The story’s symbolism seems to relate to drug abuse and alcoholism. One such character furthers this analogy when they reveal they can smell that Maren is “one of them.” There’s also a sexual fluidity to the tale, an exploration of lust and desire. The characters here go after what they want, regardless of social norms, and the movie’s alluring cinematography wonders if there’s beauty to be had in the strange things our hearts desire.
The characters in this movie eat. Like, a lot. But it’s not always human flesh; they’re often seen with Wendy’s bags or going out for breakfast. Lee orders Lucky Charms from a diner. I really wanted that bowl, and it was the ONLY time in the movie that I had an appetite. Ironically, when the characters are eating food, they appear somewhat normal. Ultimately, their disease brings about this challenge: how normal can their life be, and what strange parts of their nature can they reasonably fit into a normal existence? Perhaps there’s salvation on the horizon, but maybe it’s all destined to go to hell eventually. There’s a long take in this movie where Lee and Maren are sitting on a rail platform as the camera slowly (I mean exceptionally slow) zooms in. It’s another of those indulgent scenes, but it’s one of the film’s most memorable and intimate shots. It may seem like it lasts a long time for the viewer, but I’m sure it feels like a split second to the characters. If they could do it all over again, they’d likely want such a peaceful moment to last a lifetime.