Young lovers navigate a taboo romance that places them as outsiders to the rest of the world. Luca Guadagnino knows this territory quite well and has explored it in a myriad of different ways. But never quite like with Bones and All, a love story of a different breed and Guadagnino’s best yet. While if features a reunion with Call Me By Your Name star Timothée Chalamet and even that film’s co-star Michael Stuhlbarg, this is far from a sequel. Some of the gentler aesthetics remain, but that’s about where the similarities end, and the film is far better for it.
Based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis, Bones and All is a story about the way we are when we fall in love. To be in love is to want to consume every part of that person, and to be consumed by them, until they are as much as part of you as you are of them. While Chalamet gets the top bill, the film belongs to Waves breakout Taylor Russell as Maren. The 18-year-old Maren has a secret. She’s quiet, timid, almost scared of her own shadow it seems. It’s something forced upon her by her father (André Holland), who has been shouldering her secret since birth. Maren is an “eater.” Ever since Maren devoured parts of her babysitter as a child, her father has been covering for such instances. But now she’s gotten older. And when Maren’s cannibalistic urges overcome her at a sleepover with other girls, he can no longer carry that burden. He flees, leaving behind some cash and a voice recording explaining his actions, her violent past, and more.
Set in the 1980s during the worst of Reagan’s “greed is good” era, Bones and All follows Maren on her journey through the rural landscapes of midwestern America, discovering a secret community of people who also hunger for human flesh. Guadagnino, who has never set a film in America before, is fascinated by the world he is building; the places and the people in them. Appropriately, in the dark of night, she encounters Sully, played with maximum creep factor by Mark Rylance. Sully seems nice enough, and he’s eager to teach the inexperienced Maren about the ways of eaters. There are rules…or at least he says he has a few. But there’s just something serial killer-ish about him. They share a fresh kill. It means something different for him than it does for her. The casual way that he walks around with the dead woman’s blood on him, on his hands, in his teeth, on his breath (he burps, grossly)…it’s all off-putting. There’s also that thing where he keeps his victims’ hair braided into a massive rope.
It’s in a Walmart (the apex of consumerism in a story about people who consume people!) that Maren first encounters Lee (Chalamet), who gives off homeless punk slacker vibes that I’m sure Chalamet lovers will swoon over. He’s a wounded hawk, both tough and vulnerable. He’s got family back home in Kentucky. His younger sister (Francesca Scorsese) is worried about him. But Lee is a hardened veteran of this eater life. He knows what it’s like to exist in the shadows, to kill and eat in secret. He may have even loved before, but not like the love he builds with Maren.
Much of Bones and All has to do with Maren and Lee navigating this strange pocket world they’re in. Eaters walk among us freely, but it’s like they exist in their own universe, like vampires. Everything about this world is eerie and dangerous. There’s scarcely a moment when the two lovers aren’t in some kind of danger, and that goes double when they encounter others like themselves.
Guadagnino seems more interested in the eaters themselves than the eater lifestyle. That can be frustrating, especially when it can be a metaphor for so much, including queer culture in the ’80s when they were faced with some of the worst antagonism, forcing them to hide. But the performances are genuinely so good that it’s hard to be too upset. I don’t consider myself a Chalamet fan at all, but it’s performances like this, where his tenderness is matched by a total submission to violence (a nighttime cornfield kill is both sensual and brutal) that it’s clear what a talent he is. But this is Russell’s movie, and she shouldn’t be overshadowed simply because Maren’s mistrust and sensitivity are less showy.
The source material being of a YA nature, Bones and All can’t help but be a bit slight and unadventurous in the depiction of Maren and Lee’s relationship. There are fights, disagreements, break-ups…what teen romance doesn’t go through these things? What Guadagnino does is treat these familiar tropes with respect, because the feelings are real no matter what the age, and perhaps more heightened with those so young. In the case of Maren and Lee, they are giving all of themselves to the other, bones and all.
Bones and All opens wide in theaters on November 23rd.