Call My By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino reteams with Timothée Chalamet for the strangely moving cannibalistic romance Bones and All. Based on the bestselling book by Camille DeAngelis, the story is set in a world where cannibalism is a disease of sorts and where those afflicted by it keep the problem under wraps. For obvious reasons. Their hunger to feed on human flesh is something they can’t control, and it falls on the families of those that have the affliction to educate them about it and keep it at bay.
But as for many with mental and/or physical challenges – and those that feel like outsiders – families don’t always want to expend the effort, so those needing help must look elsewhere.
This is the set-up for the haunting drama that stars Taylor Russell (Waves) as Maren, an eighteen-year-old “eater” who has become nomadic with her seemingly supportive father. You see, anytime Maren slips up with her noshing, the pair have to skip town. This occurs early in the film when Maren is invited to a party by girls at her new school, and while bonding with one, she makes the girl’s pointer finger an appetizer.
Moving swiftly to a motel, Maren wakes up to find her father has left, unable to care for her. He leaves her $100, her birth certificate, and a cassette tape of her past indiscretions. But it is on her birth certificate that she discovers who her absentee mother is and decides to trek across the country to find her.
When her trip begins, she finds herself waiting overnight at a bus stop where she meets a simple man named Sully (Mark Rylance) who says he could “smell her” from across the street. But it’s not as creepy (yet) as it seems. He reveals he’s an eater too, and takes her under his wing. This includes providing her with a meal that consists of an old lady dying in the upstairs bedroom.
He eventually gives her a bit of “eater” history and some tips to help her, including identifying others like herself. But Sully’s odd ways make her sneak out in the middle of the night and continue on her journey.
This is where she meets her eventual beau Lee (played by Chalamet), while shoplifting at a Walmart. He’s a slight thing with his dyed hair and devil-may-care confidence that instantly catches Maren’s attention. Realizing they are both eaters, the two join forces, with Lee promising to help her find her mother. In that, a romance is born as they continue to navigate what it means to be what they are.
There is a definite sexual identity analogy going on here, but also an AIDS metaphor as well. Innocent people with a certain trait or affliction are forced to walk in the shadows. Set in the 80s, these two become outcasts for who they are and what they do, and it’s the coming to terms with that, which becomes their true journey.
Both have moments of sexual fluidity. The finger girl could have been a precursor to something more for Maren – until she bit it off. And Lee meets a carnival worker he is clearly attracted to but knows he can make easily “disappear” so he and Maren can have a meal.
But guilt and ethics come to play, and Maren begins to feel the strain her condition creates. It begs the question: who is deserving to be killed and eaten, if anyone? And if no one, how do they survive? Can they survive? Can they control themselves? Or is there something in their DNA that creates a need to devour human flesh? (There’s a whole vegan vs. meat-eater subtext here as well.)
All of this is profoundly fascinating and keeps the audience’s mind racing with moral questions as they come to love the main characters.
The script by David Kajganich walks a delicate tightrope, ensuring that the sometimes ridiculousness of the story doesn’t overshadow the themes and characters. Making their cannibalism a disorder that they don’t know how to control helps because we develop empathy for their struggle. Kajganich takes the story seriously, as does Guadagnino and the crew of terrific actors.
Everyone here does excellent work, from Andre Holland as Maren’s father to horror icon Jessica Harper (Suspiria) as someone from Maren’s mother’s past. Chloe Sevigny is almost unrecognizable as a key figure in Maren’s life, and Michael Stuhlbarg has the other unrecognizable part as a drifter “eater.” With that said, the three stand-outs are Rylance, Russell, and Chalamet.
Rylance creates a defining character in Sully with his unusual speaking cadence, specific mannerisms, and awkward physicality. It’s a captivating performance, both creepy and sometimes heartbreaking. Chalamet charms and frightens as the lost soul struggling with the guilt of his actions and his love for Maren. He feels like he can’t go home despite having a loving mother and sister who want him there. He’s drawn to them but knows his way of living won’t mesh. Not only that, he’s afraid he might do something harmful to them. It’s heart-wrenching to see the skirmish play out inside of him.
That said, this is Russell’s film all the way. She is in almost every scene and carries the story on her very capable shoulders. She is the tender heart of every scene, and her empathy and cognizance for the layers of what she and Lee are going through are the thread that holds this unusual story together.
And it is unusual. Even weird. But it is also stunning. Guadagnino and his cast allow us to find the humanity and grace in these characters, and by the end, we are attached to them – even when they are munching on a human body, leaving nothing behind. Bones and all.