Following his unexpectedly masterful reimagining of Suspiria and this warped yet romantic love story about a pair of cannibals, if director Luca Guadagnino wants to continue dropping in with arthouse horror films, I’m all for it. Bones and All is the sort of lovingly realized feature that understands its oddities and matches its high concept with authentic performances and a touching approach to the filmmaking. It allows the film some strong ways to match the grisly subject matter and visuals to accompany the gruesome display of its horror-tinged metaphor. Plus, who doesn’t like a good road movie?
Taylor Russell stars as Maren. Based on how she’s introduced, one would assume she’s a regular high school girl doing her best as the new kid in town. A sleepover she’s not supposed to be a part of goes off the rails when we see Maren go from appreciating the quick friendships she’s formed to sucking the meat off a finger. Racing back home, Maren’s father (André Holland) tells her to pack whatever she can in five minutes, as they need to get out of town before the police come. Cut to the title.
The opening will certainly cause quite a stir as far as having the audience understand how far the film wants to go in showing the approach to Maren (and a few other characters) eating other humans. It also reveals the sparse nature of the film. With Suspiria, Guadagnino didn’t reduce the amount of gore found in Argento’s 70s masterwork (if anything, it’s even crazier by the end), but there was a more muted approach to counter the richness found in another Italian filmmaker’s visual sensibilities. Bones and All is not without a sense of warmth when depicting the romance, but there’s still a level of restraint regarding the depths of Maren’s journey.
Information is revealed over time, but I enjoyed how the film found ways to pause when it came to what we come to understand about Maren’s condition and what’s going on with the people she meets during her eventual quest to find her mother. It allows Guadagnino to embrace various influences ranging from Badlands to Let the Right One In. With that in mind, the director remains infatuated with the less complicated times of the recent past. Set in the mid-80s (like Call Me By Your Name), the idea that a limited but still notable amount of cannibals are out there among people allows some thoughts to emerge as far as what this represents.
As far as this story goes, Maren eventually meets up with Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a fellow “eater” (as they are referred to) who presents himself as a confident and brash individual. That said, he easily falls for Maren, as the two quickly see each other not only as eaters but lost souls attempting to find some meaning in their hunger that can also drive them to do unsavory things. The chemistry Russell and Chalamet share is quite strong, with both performers making the most out of these characters in a manner that feels right in line with what’s been seen before when it comes to famous cinematic couples on the run in some capacity.
Chalamet continues his streak of bringing more than one may expect to a roll. His character design gives him a distinct look, yet things like the washed-out, hole-filled jeans only serve to eventually expose how slight he is underneath it all. He may know how to handle himself, but he’s also a kid who misses being with his family.
Russell continues to break through as well, and she’s given the most…. ahem, meat in this film as the one guiding the story. Even as a point of view character, there’s a lot to take from someone coming to terms with the condition they were born with and realizing they are the most emotionally mature of anyone encountered.
This indeed tracks when it comes to the film’s other notable character, Sully. Played by Mark Rylance with an affected accent, long ponytail, and (of course) a spiffy hat, this is the sort of creepy guy one can feel empathy for, despite knowing there’s a lot of evil lurking within. The thing is, Guadagnino knows how to match that wickedness with childlike innocence. Sure, Sully is seasoned and has established rules for how he conducts his cannibal acts, but he still finds himself pursuing Maren like a young schoolboy with a crush. It’s a trippy performance, to say the least, but an effective way to build out this world.
Other notable character actors also pop up along the way, which fits given the format of this film. Shot on 35mm by Arseni Khachturan, there’s a shagginess to how Bones and All has been put together. It’s appreciated, but not as though we are watching a series of vignettes. Still, the way Maren and Lee drop in and out of various parts of the Midwest allows the film to have its characters reflect in various ways, further developing their ascent into adulthood. It also strengthens the different metaphors regarding this distinct appetite our leads and the supporting characters all share.
Is it fair to also acknowledge the gonzo energy that comes from a film where two young leads often find themselves cleaning up the blood off their face, following a fresh meal of human flesh? Of course. And while Guadagnino does not attempt to break up the naturalistic approach to his filmmaking with any sense of irony, one can’t deny there being a wry and oddball sense of humor baked into what audiences are seeing. This is particularly the case with Rylance’s early interactions, as there needs to be a sense of understanding in place, allowing the audience to grow comfortable with what seems like an insane idea to want to support in some twisted way before letting the film gain momentum in more tension-focused ways.
To be a success, there is a sense of carefulness that I quite appreciated about Guadagnino’s approach to Bones and All. It undoubtedly satisfies as a strange piece of horror fiction, yet also works as a tender love story. There’s a quiet confidence in how this has all been assembled, including a fittingly offbeat score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and great uses of wide shots during magic hour. If ever there was a film about cannibals that one could describe as an achievement in maintaining a level of stunning poeticism, this is the one to do it, even if I had to chew on it for a bit.