[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation for its coverage of the 2022 New York Film Festival.]
“Am I seriously sympathizing with cannibals right now?”
I found myself asking that question in the final stretch of Bones and All, the latest film by Luca Guadagnino. The filmmaker tends to drape existential musings (or crises) in beautiful imagery that’ll distract you long enough until that emotional gut punch lands and throws you off your axis. This film pushes the fidelity of his framework to the razor’s edge. You have to draw the line at cannibalism, right? You can’t tell a story about humans consuming other humans without it being mired in nothing but disgust and horror, yes?
Well, no, as Bones and All proves. Set in the 1980s, Maren (Taylor Russell) is an introverted teenager who struggles to control her hunger for human flesh. After one unfortunate (and bloody) incident, Maren’s helpless father (André Holland) abandons her with just her birth certificate and a few hundred dollars. Maren decides to seek out her mother for answers about her cannibalism and, possibly, love and acceptance. Along the way, she encounters other “eaters,” like Sully (Mark Rylance), a lonely and unhinged eater who fixates on Maren. And then there is Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a red-haired grifter who represents some normal in this life. Maren and Lee travel the Midwest together, discovering who they are and want to be.
Bones and All is remarkably focused and comprehensive for a film partially defined by its protagonists’ aimlessness. The film nearly defies genre, weaving through traditionally defined spaces with stunning ease and grace. It certainly earns its body horror credentials, with plenty of flesh-gnawing and blood splashes that will make iron stomachs quiver. With its stunning captures of rural life and landscapes, quiet nights in the woods, and lazy afternoons in diners, it relishes in the road movie tradition. Guadagnino also dips his toe into some pools of thriller, creating air pockets of suspense in some scenes that can make it a touch harder to breathe in your seat.
The most welcome surprise of Bones and All’s tonal tapestry is how funny it ends up being. There were moments when I laughed and feared I wasn’t supposed to; this story is about young cannibals, after all. What becomes clear is that the humor is part of the point. Guadagnino knows how easy it is for a film about young cannibals to take itself too seriously. The levity, whether it be from Lee jamming to KISS’ “Lick It Up” or nearly everything Sully does when we first meet him, is a release valve. It’s a reminder that this premise is bonkers, and you can take it seriously without being joyless.
Even with its seamless genre-hopping, Bones and All is primarily a love story about two people lost in a world hostile to their existence. Guilt shapes their journeys as they reckon with the consequences of their cannibalism and its implications for who they are. Are they bad people? Is goodness possible in this life? Is love possible, and do they deserve it?
The film shares its insight through the splintered prism of love and acceptance. It has its limits, especially when someone can’t take themselves to where their loved one is. It can be terrifying when the need for companionship mutates into entitlement and ownership. Finally, it can be freeing, offering stability as you take the first steps to self-actualization. Lee and Maren’s multi-faceted, blood-soaked union is ultimately about the moving power of unconditional love and compassion. I hesitate to draw any direct allegorical collections, but I imagine that the tenderness at the film’s core will touch anyone grappling with their own identity.
Guadagnino packs a lot into Bones and All, but doesn’t let his ambitions overwhelm him. He relishes in his ambition. The film is utterly captivating, blending sensuous images and sounds that enliven the story’s beauty and horror. Guadagnino transforms the brutal consumption of flesh into a breathlessly seductive act, leaving you drenched in feelings you’ll probably need to sit with. That process will have to come afterward because the film’s lyrical romanticism melts away as it approaches its final act. It is a staggering, gonzo mold of everything the film touched on before, shocking in its visceral brutality and devastating in its emotional truth.
Bones and All is an audacious effort that requires the same of its cast, especially its young leads. Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell meet, even exceed, the moment. Chalamet turns his trademark kinetic energy inward to pull us into Lee’s deceptively disaffected approach to cannibalism. When Lee lets the mask drop, the vulnerability spills from Chalamet like a light but steady stream, measured but profoundly affecting. It’s a performance that relies on Chalamet’s crystallizing screen presence as much as his exceptional technique, and it is his best yet. Russell herself is a revelation. Her performance conveys so much at once: wonder, disgust, intelligence, skepticism, sensuality. The array is broad, but she grounds it in an inviting naturalism. Russell and Chalamet cultivate a tender passion that is a compelling counterpoint to their ravenous hunger. Your heart aches and breaks for them.
This brings us back to that opening question, which will likely needle you as Chalamet and Russell wipe their bloody mouths with shame and satiation. You’ll be stunned by how easy it is to feel for two young cannibals on the road to self-discovery. You may re-assess your entertainment boundaries to fit a film that could uncover the beauty and romance in the grotesque with such ease. Bones and All will ravish your senses and soul, changing you in small but fundamental ways. It should surprise you, but this is a Luca Guadagnino film. Ravishment is always on the menu.