First Love Proves All-Consuming in Grisly, Romantic Bones and All

Luca Guadagnino's tender, terrifying young love story between—bear with me—a pair of cannibal paramours is deeply sensitive and shocking in the extreme. It's also one of the year's best films.

6 mins read

Luca Guadagnino’s spellbinding Bones and All, a tender, terrifying young love story between—bear with me—a pair of cannibal paramours, is deeply sensitive and shocking in the extreme. That proves quite a combo in a film Guadagnino has delivered with a most original mash-up of feeling and frights. Based on the award-winning novel by Camille DeAngelis and adapted by screenwriter David Kajganich (who scripted the director’s A Bigger Splash and Suspira reimagining), it poses a knockout question—what good is first love anyway if it isn’t, um, all consuming?

The terrific Taylor Russell (Waves), whose nuanced performance won a prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival (as did Guadagnino for his directing), and Timothée Chalamet are the anthropophagist lovers on the road and run—think Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands—making their way across a rural, unforgiving Midwest circa 1980s, coming of age and into their own true natures, finding love and community. Sounds like any young adult rite-of-passage, right?

Picture opens on young Maren Yearly (Russell), a seventeen-year-old high school student with a dark and dormant secret, and one that is accidentally revealed at a slumber party, taking a familiar scene–teen girls giggling in confidence–and turning it on its head with shock when she bites her best friend’s finger to the bone, ferociously swallowing its skin. Her father, played by Moonlight‘s Andre Holland, high tails it out of town, leaving only an audiocassette to fill in the blanks of her nature and lineage, and of her own mother’s predilection as an “eater,” a grisly genetic inheritance.

Maren hits the road herself in search of that mysterious mother. But first she will learn about her creepy disposition from an aged eater named Sully, played with wily, crazed danger by Mark Rylance, who educates her on an eaters’ ability to smell another of its kind while assuring that the eater’s urge is not controllable and must always be satiated. In one of the film’s most unnerving scenes, the pair lays in wait as a old woman experiences a heart attack. Upon her expiration, they voraciously tear into her flesh. “Never eat an eater,” Sully advises. What is the nature of his fixation on young Maren? The movie holds, then methodically plays, his character’s cards.

A chance encounter turns up a gaunt drifter named Lee (Chalamet), with dyed orange hair, ripped jeans and a dangerously sexy skin-and-bones visage, on the run from his own family and dark past, which involves the mysterious disappearance of his father. The way this unlikely love story plays out–including a first kiss set in a slaughterhouse and escalating passions and horrors across state lines including Ohio, Virginia, Missouri and Indiana (denoted in large abbreviations across the screen and shot with true grit and dream-like romanticism by cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan)–is both original and oddly moving.

By the time Maren and Lee find themselves truth-telling on a plateau overlooking the heartland plains, the unexpected emotional punch of this movie is daring; the dialogue from Chalamet’s Lee, conjuring genuine, young adult pathos from blackly absurd, visceral memories, is substantively moving.

At times, one can get so wrapped up in the stars’ growing chemistry–which Guadagnino and Chalamet well navigate given their heartbreaking collaboration in 2017’s Call Me by Your Name–that it is jolting to remember the pair’s bloodlust-in-spite-of-themselves disposition. Such is the power of movie stars that Russell, whom the camera loves in every shot, and Chalamet, in all his fluid sensuality, make the film’s savage survivalist spree seem one of palatable necessity that we are willing to accept without question. As Maren’s gangly, tortured protector, Chalamet delivers his best onscreen work since his Oscar-nominated Call Me by Your Name performance and better than any during his subsequent five meteoric years as a screen heartthrob.

There are neve-jangling sequences in Bones and All, including an unsettling campfire encounter with another eater, played with quiet menace by Michael Stuhlbarg (who nearly stole Call Me by Your Name in his climactic father-son monologue) and filmmaker David Gordon Green as his ride-or-die pal, not a cannibal himself but, we assume, willing to give it a shot. And Jessica Harper turns up in an effective cameo, holding the keys to Maren’s family history. When Maren’s elusive mother finally turns up in truly ghastly late picture scene, she is played by a possessed Chloe Sevigny, institutionalized after having eaten her own arms to the elbows. Yes, that’s right.

In addition to the great young drifter outlaw epics, the movie’s perverse subculture nods to Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire as if told through the stylized grunge of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. Guadagnino has delivered a blazing, counterculture provocation, defiant right to its uncompromising, Grand Guignol denouement. While the film hasn’t a trace of exploitation and is far from gratuitous, no doubt some will be repulsed by its periodic, voracious mayhem. Others will find its cold-light-of-day terrors diabolically fascinating.

Bones and All is one the year’s boldest, best films.

4 stars

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