Luca Guadagnino returns with another sumptuous cinematic feast full of horror and wonder
Based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis, Bones and All follows Maren (Taylor Russell), an awkward teenage girl abandoned by her father (André Holland) after a traumatic incident involving Maren at a girl’s sleepover. With no home to speak of, Maren embarks on a cross-country journey to find her mother, using only a cryptic cassette tape and birth certificate left by her father as Maren’s only guides to her past and potential future. Along the way, she meets Sully (Mark Rylance), an enigmatic drifter who reveals he shares the same condition as her: they both have a hunger for human flesh and can sniff out others who share the same affliction. Maren also meets Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a scrappy waif of a boy who seems like her perfect match. As they navigate their overwhelming desires to consume one another as much as they do the victims in their path, the consequences of Maren and Lee’s actions never seem far behind.
What draws me to Luca Guadagnino’s period films is his reverence for the lived-in minutiae of his settings, especially with Call Me By Your Name’s pastoral Italian villas and the crumbling post-war decay of Suspiria’s 1970s Berlin. The knick-knacks and faded tacked-up posters of Guadagnino’s characters don’t just make his characters more of their time, but help lend them an essential vitality; every acquired souvenir or reaction to a musical needle drop makes them feel so much more alive…as if these small objects are totems of their souls. This approach applies tremendously to Guadagnino’s first American production, where Guadagnino and production designer Elliott Hostetter mine a grotesque and foreboding majesty out of Reagan-era back-alley Americana.
In Bones and All, the director and designer effortlessly evoke a shared cultural memory of the 1980s in all of its nostalgic exceptionalism: suburban families, packed carnivals, lakeside camping trips, bustling school campuses, and more. In anyone’s home, you’ll find Kiss records in milk crates or glitter makeup sprawled across glass coffee tables. However, Bones and All quickly peels back this comforting gloss like skinning a wild animal, exposing the festering anxieties shared by Americans who feel like they could never belong in such an exclusionary culture…whether it’s the America of the 1980s or the 2020s.
As Maren and Lee exist in the shadows of small-town America hunting for their next victims, they carve out beautiful moments of connection and endure greater moments of isolation. They learn how to sniff out others like them, discovering each other at bus stops, gas stations, or midway game stalls. They congregate in abandoned buildings, cornfields, or open fields to trade tips earned along the way for how to stay hidden, lure victims, and cope with their actions. Some, like Rylance’s Sully, have their “rules” (among them, not eating an “Eater”) that they hold on to in order to hold onto some semblance of normalcy. A rare intimacy is formed when these eaters share their struggles with one another, each of them knowing the pain of loss and rejection faced by so few in society. Lee, Maren, and dream of going back to human lives–even if the possibility of successfully doing so will mean inevitable failure as their need to feed arises. The cannibals of Bones and All who thrive out of spite gutturally speak to those whose behavior or way of life has been struck from the acceptable societal norms of Reaganite America. Whether it’s homeless veterans abandoned after Vietnam; neurodivergent individuals who were cast out of state-funded hospitals en masse; or the LGBTQ+ community plagued by HIV/AIDS, all to heterosexual indifference; all were victims shunned and scored to a deadly degree. The result is Luca Guadagnino’s most lush and romantic epic yet, one that recognizes the defiant and terrifying beauty at the heart of pursuing forbidden desires that aren’t our choices to make but are inseparable from who we are as human beings.
The intricately detailed production design and an achingly longing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross help augment these fraught emotional landscapes, which are lovingly brought to life care of Guadagnino’s fantastic ensemble cast. A tapestry of character actors provides a supporting bedrock for the leads. André Holland and Jessica Harper provide two wonderful turns as parents whose inability to help their children frustratingly reveals the limits of their love for them. An unrecognizable Michael Stuhlbarg and a very recognizable David Gordon Green provide a gut-churning duo who bond in unexpected ways related to converting someone who’s fascinated with eaters into their way of life. Mark Rylance’s Sully wears a bone-chilling mask of sincerity as a Faginesque teacher to Maren who longs to be both her teacher and companion. Where Lee and Maren are staring down a long road of loneliness as Eaters, every mile of that journey is already worn into every wrinkle in Sully’s inscrutable face. The charm that endeared viewers to Rylance in films like Bridge of Spies or The BFG is wholly weaponized here, in a film where the teeth of a smile are easily comparable to brandished knives.
But Bones and All lives and dies by its leads, with Russell and Chalamet turning in deliriously romantic and broodingly intimate performances. Both of them delightfully twist the tropes of coming-of-age romances (Ferris wheel kisses, hillside confessionals, etc.) into secretive moments strengthened all the more by the brutal crimes they commit in order to survive. Despite Lee and Maren’s disturbing behavior, however, Chalamet and Russell never lose a sense of innocence or empathy. Much like Sissy Spacek in Badlands, you always wish the world would stop raging against these youths no matter how complicit they are in the horrors they perpetrate. Throughout, too, the cause and effect of Lee and Maren’s journey take a literal backseat to their emotional one. Unrooted and untethered to specific demands of timeline or location, Bones and All keenly charts its rhythms to the shifting desires of its leads and their struggle to belong in a world like this.
It’s worth noting that one sequence involves Lee’s seduction of a man (Jake Horowitz) to eat him, while the film’s chilling cold open crescendos with Maren’s devouring of a girlfriend’s finger. While a quick read could accuse Bones and All of equating Queerness with its cannibalistic subject matter, I didn’t consider this to be the case. Rather, both sequences have a tortured longing at their core, from a straight shunning by Maren’s friend to the shamed, closeted nature of cruising on both men’s behalf. It isn’t that their Queerness should be as repulsive as their cannibalism, but that it’s already considered as such before any bone-chomping takes place. However, Lee and Maren aren’t repulsed by this specific behavior in one another. Rather, they’re perfect for each other because they love and respect each other’s agency, emotional necessities, Queerness, appetites–bones and all.
Guadagnino and regular screenwriting collaborator David Kajganich ensure that it’s a journey that’s equally romantic and repulsive. The passions and dangers of Lee and Maren’s world are viscerally comparable, with rushes of blood felt as much in a stolen kiss as they are from a spurt from the jugular. The gore, of which there’s plenty to go around, will surely become a point of contention among the Stans who go see this on Thanksgiving weekend; however, it’s shot in ways that provoke equal disgust and fascination, replicating the dejected craving our characters feel. It’s a film that, however repelled we may initially be by its subject matter, yearns to be felt and understood–and through that, provoke some form of care and acceptance. It’s the embrace of inner and outer terror that allows Lee and Maren to revel in the passions only afforded to a free life.
If eating the living is the only way to earn a life worth living, so be it. In doing so, we satisfy our deeper hunger to belong.
Bones and All had its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest and will receive a theatrical release courtesy of MGM and United Artists on November 18th, with a wide release on November 23rd.