It might seem strange, but Luca Guadagnino’s intimate account of first love between two cannibal drifters in 1980s Middle America, Bones and All, has some of the same softness, sensitivity and gentle naturalism he brought to his HBO series about teen slackers on a Northern Italian military base, We Are Who We Are. Even when they’re feasting on human flesh, walking away wearing bibs of blood and gristle, the film depicts its protagonists — played with a touching, guarded fragility by Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet — not as monsters but as rootless outsiders hungering to connect and feed an appetite they can’t control.
Adapted by Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash and Suspiria writer David Kajganich from the 2015 YA coming-of-age novel by Camille DeAngelis, this is both a horror movie and a humanistic story of disenfranchised youth looking to figure out who and what they are, ultimately just yearning to belong. As such, the MGM/UA release should find an especially receptive audience among people still affected by that aching adolescent path to self-knowledge. The reunion of the director with his Call Me by Your Name star Chalamet won’t hurt its appeal either.
Bones and All
The Bottom Line
Surprising balm to ameliorate the bite.
The emotional center of Bones and All, however, is Russell, the revelation of Trey Edward Shults’ Waves. She plays Maren, an 18-year-old who recently transferred to a new high school in Virginia, where she avoids being in the yearbook photos but nonetheless craves friendship. Despite her protective dad (André Holland) locking her in her room in their trailer home at night for reasons that will soon be evident, she sneaks out to a sleepover. While bonding to the quiet strains of Duran Duran, she relaxes into a state of dazed contentment — almost sexual intoxication — and does something startling that scares the hell out of her classmates.
When she returns home spattered in blood, her father tells her to pack whatever she can in three minutes so they can bolt before the cops come. This is clearly not their first such hasty departure. But at their next bare-bones temporary home in Maryland, Maren’s heartbroken dad abandons her, leaving cash and a cassette tape in which he recounts the details of her young life, the episodes of carnage that began with a babysitter when she was just a toddler, and the reasons he can no longer take care of her.
The delicate mood and melancholy restraint — shaped in part by the quiet, acoustic foundations from which Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ atmospheric score gradually builds — initially recall Tomas Alfredson’s gorgeous Let the Right One In, another emotionally layered first love depiction that featured a conflicted guardian and a female adolescent with a different kind of need to feed.
The only other thing Maren’s father left was her birth certificate, which prompts her to hit the road in search of her mother. (Kajganich switches the gender of the parental roles from the book.) Having grown up believing she was the only one of her kind, she’s surprised in Ohio to meet the very folksy and disconcertingly familiar Sully, played by Mark Rylance giving maximum Mark Rylance, comically endearing and decidedly creepy at the same time. He says he recognized her scent as a fellow feeder from a mile off.
An oddball who refers to himself in the third person, Sully gives her tips on how to home in on someone near death, providing sustenance without the need to kill. But after they’ve shared fresh meat and gotten bloody together, Maren sneaks off rather than accept his offer of companionship.
She’s more inclined to stick around when she meets another feeder closer to her own age, Lee (Chalamet), in Indiana. He puts on an aggressive swagger (“When you weigh 140lbs wet, you gotta have a big attitude”) and is unapologetically pragmatic about the means by which he satisfies his needs. But as they start traveling together, including a visit to his kid sister (Anna Cobb) in Kentucky, he reveals a sweeter side that almost imperceptibly yields romance.
A couple of key scenes around this point lean more into conventional horror territory. One is an encounter in Missouri with a redneck named Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg, another Call Me by Your Name alum) and his ex-cop buddy Brad (filmmaker David Gordon Green in a rare acting role), during which an unspoken menace hangs in the air. Another is an interaction with a carnival worker (Jake Horowitz). Like the earlier Virginia scene with Maren, this suggests an overlap between flesh-eating and pansexual desire, though unforeseen discoveries about the stranger distress Maren, who remains ethically opposed to destroying lives.
While no shortage of blood flows, and it would be a stretch to call the handling of the cannibalism, ahem, tasteful, audiences with an aversion to gore are unlikely to be too ruffled by those elements. That’s perhaps because Guadagnino has made a kind of emo horror movie. He’s far less interested in the shock factor than the poignant isolation of his young principal characters and the life raft they come to represent to one another as they slowly let down their guard.
Those aspects are played with minimal overt displays by Russell and Chalamet but with a steady swell of subcutaneous feeling — of emotional transparency as the characters open up to each other about the traumas of their pasts and the chemistry between the two actors deepens, apparent in their lovely body language together. Everything they do is easy, unforced, underplayed to subtly stirring effect, and the filmmakers’ unstinting empathy for Maren and Lee is contagious. It makes sense that one of the inspirations was the outlaw lovers of Badlands.
Single scenes late in the action with characters played by Jessica Harper (renewing her Suspiria acquaintance with the director) and Chloë Sevigny (who appeared in We Are Who We Are) expand Maren’s understanding of herself while providing her no comfort. But the promise of lasting closeness appears to shift the paradigm of her world until an ambiguous character from earlier resurfaces, bringing danger and threatening to end her reprieve.
Guadagnino’s seemingly divergent interests in romance and horror have never come together quite so ideally as they do here, played out against a constantly moving canvas of small-town America. Those backroads, left behind by the economic boom of the Reagan years, are captured in grainy textures with an unfussy, period-appropriate feel courtesy of Belarusian cinematographer Arseni Khatchaturan (best known for the Georgian film Beginning).
For a dark, dreamy movie that climaxes in fresh bloodshed, violence and sacrifice, the ending is strangely affecting, even poetic. That’s perhaps because although Kajganich’s script covers just a few short summer months, it seems to compress two young lifetimes of experience, the way all overwhelming first loves do.