Warning: This review contains spoilers about the plot and characters that could impact your experience of watching the film if have not yet seen it. Proceed at your own risk.
Luca Guadagnino's Bones and All could be affixed with a slightly altered version of the marketing line for Arthur Penn's groundbreaking counterculture hit Bonnie and Clyde (1967)-"They're young they're in love and they kill people"-except it would be "They're young they're in love and they eat people." The "they" in question are a pair of teenagers, Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothe Chalamet), who find each other in the great, open expanse of middle America because they are both "eaters."
Now, we don't know much of anything about "eaters" except for the fact that they are compelled from time to time to eat human flesh. Some of the writing I have read about the film has described them as "cannibals," but that doesn't feel accurate because cannibalism is a choice, a decision one makes to eat other people whether out of survivalist desperation, mental illness, or cultural or religious tradition. The eaters in Bones and All are born with a deep-seated, seemingly supernatural compulsion-a literal need-to eat people that they cannot contain; like vampirism, they can keep it at bay for a while, but at some point they must eat, and while it is never clarified what will happen to them if they don't, the assumption is that it is not good.
Based on the 2015 novel by Camille DeAngelis and set in the late 1980s, Bones and All is both a coming-of-age drama and an explicit horror film, and the best thing one can say about it is that Guadagnino manages the balance of those two tenors exceedingly well, to the point that one bleeds seamlessly into the other. Screenwriter David Kajganich, who also penned Guadagnino's 2019 remake of Suspiria, opens the film in quite different fashion from the novel, which shocks the reader with Maren's first-person accounting of how she killed and partially devoured her babysitter when she was toddler (this disturbing anecdote is also told in the film, but later on and by another character). Rather, the films opens as if it were a relatively ordinary teen drama, with Maren, the new girl at her school, being invited to a sleepover by a friend. There are some subtle suggestions that things are not right, such as her father (Andr Holland), who won't let her sleep over at friends' houses, literally locking her in her room at night. And, once Maren makes it to her friend's house, there are inklings of sexual attraction between Maren and her friend as they lie underneath a table talking while two other friends paint each other's nails. All such intimations come to a literally screeching halt when Maren takes her friend's fingers and, rather than kissing on them as we might expect, starts to vigorously gnaw on them and rip them off. This is about 10 minutes into the film, and we know now that we are in decidedly unfamiliar territory.
Maren's father, having become accustomed to moving from place to place to escape the aftermath of her attacks, quickly packs them up and moves them out in the space of half an hour. But, having done this so many times and having lived in fear and confusion for so long, he soon abandons Maren, leaving her with an audiocassette in which he tells her of her past, who her mother is, and why he has to leave. These audio recordings are spread out throughout the film, as Maren cannot bear to listen to them all at once. So, as she does, we learn little bits about her past as she moves forward in the present, travelling across the country in the hopes of finding the mother she never knew.
Along the way, she learns that there are other eaters, a fact of which she had previously been unaware. The first she meets is Sully (Mark Rylance), an oddball older man with a lilting Southern accent who often speaks of himself in the third person and a strange demeanor who nevertheless teaches her a few important lessons, including the fact that eaters can smell each other. Sully is inviting, but off-putting, and Maren soon runs out on him, after which point she meets Lee (Chalamet), another eater (as you will recall, Chalamet first broke out as the young lead in Guadagnino's romance Call Me by Your NameCall Me By Your Name star Michael Stuhlbarg and, in a strange bit of casting, director David Gordon Green), one of whom is revealed to be not a true eater, but rather a serial killer who has found the ultimate partner in crime. There is also a long sequence in which Lee seduces and kills a carnival worker who they later discover was a husband and father, which sends Maren's guilt into overdrive. She continues to be driven by her desire to root out her past and find her mother, which eventually lands her on the doorstep of her grandmother (Jessica Harper, star of the original Suspiria) and finally a mental institution where her mother (an unrecognizable Chlo Sevigny) sits in silence, having chewed off her own arms to keep herself from eating others.
If that sounds grisly and despairing, it is. Bones and All is a gruesome film, as Guadagnino doesn't shy away from the horrors of people consuming raw human flesh in animalistic fashion (it always done like a feeding, with the eaters drenched in blood by the time they are done). Some of it is darkly humorous, and Guadagnino clearly wants to evoke the time-honored genre of the outlaw lovers on the run, which he does with both style and heart. The problem is that Russell and Chalamet, despite giving individually impressive performances, don't have a great deal of chemistry, so their unique romance fails to fully ignite. Much more interesting is the moral struggle they have with their compulsion, which is largely out of their control and requires premeditated murder in most cases, although always within certain strictures (although the manner in which Lee unnecessarily drags out the sexualized nature of his killing of the carnival worker smacks of cheap exploitation). The hillbilly killers, who introduce them to the idea of consuming a person "bones and all," do not operate by any principles, which suggests a whole world of moral coding that is either respected or deviated from. Sully, despite his strange demeanor, sticks close to a set of rules, although his return in the third act turns him into one of the film's most vicious monsters. The resulting tragedy doesn't quite reach the twisted melodramatic heights to which Guadagnino clearly aspires, which makes Bones and All, like his Suspiria remake, more interesting as a concept than it is effective as a film.
Copyright 2022 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright United Artists / MGM
Overall Rating: (2.5)
Get a daily dose of Los Angeles Herald news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.