Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All is a high-concept film that combines the horrors of cannibalism with the tenderness of a coming-of-age love story. An exceptional Taylor Russell tries her best to make it all work.
Russell stars as Maren, an 18-year-old girl living a quiet life in the Midwest in the 1980s with her dad Frank (Andre Holland). One night, Maren sneaks out to a friends house for a sleepover. Maren feels compelled to bite off her friend’s finger and eats it. Rushing home, Franks moves the family away and later leaves Maren on her own to fend for herself.
Left with her birth certificate and the name of the mother she never met, Maren begins a trek to Minnesota to find her. Along the way, she meets Sully (Mark Rylance), a fellow “eater” who shows Maren how to live in this way, despite unsettling her. Maren happens upon another eater named Lee (Timothee Chalamet), and the two bond over shared experiences. Together Maren and Lee fall in love and attempt to make sense of their lives and urges, cannibalistic and otherwise.
Despite cannibalism being a big part of the film’s narrative, it’s actually more of a road trip movie. Maren and Lee embark on a journey to find Maren’s mother, but they don’t seem to be in any rush. In fact, half the time, they just stop where they want to stop and do what they want to do. It makes the film feel aimless at times. There is no urgency to find Maren’s mother, and no grand resolution if they do. It’s all just a series of soulful vignettes peppered with gory violence.
Maren doesn’t know what to do with her urges. Sully seems most attuned to help her deal with it, but their personalities don’t match. Lee is more in-line with someone she wants to be with, but he is more reserved about sharing details. Her anger at her parents boils over to frustration. Her father didn’t know what to do with her, so he left. Her mother abandoned her (presumably because she is also an eater), but she could have helped her navigate this difficult life. Maren wants to understand her life and no one is willing to give her the help she desperately needs.
Russell is nothing short of magnificent. Despite her occasional thirst for flesh, there’s a level of innocence to her that the film desperately needs. Without her grounded portrayal, the film turns into more of a horror film. Russell’s layered, damaged Maren allows the audience to believe this could be a part of the real world, instead of some nightmarish fantasy. Russell is sympathetic whether she is crying over her departed father, or devouring on a corpse in a field. Any success the film has is due to Russell’s commitment and vulnerability.
Chalamet works as a cynical counterpoint to Russell, but one that needs to exist for some emotional conflict. Lee is more seasoned in his life as an “eater” and has different rules about how to survive. Chalamet never makes Lee feel like a villain, though he occasionally acts villainous. Instead, he embodies Lee with world-weariness and realism, while still allowing tenderness to seep through. The chemistry between Russell and Chalamet is vital for the film to work. Strangely, the chemistry is not sexual, but still extremely romantic. There is something oddly chaste about their relationship despite the otherwise extremely adult behavior between the two.
Rylance gets to be the showy weirdo, but one with surprising sympathy. Sully is a man fully alone in the world and lashes out in an incel-inspired showing when his expectations of companionship are rebuffed. Holland is always a welcome sight, and his “I can’t believe this is real” exasperation perfectly compliments the film. Michael Stuhlberg and David Gordon Green pop in for a quick scene to be creepy, but don’t really add anything to the proceedings.
Guadagnino has a history as a strong visual director, and he lets the relative peace and beauty of the American Midwest do the hard work. The entire idea of a cannibalistic love story is one that can quickly go off the rails, but he keeps the visuals as calm as possible. It’s a whiplash feeling when violence is at the forefront, but it also makes you forget the type of movie you are watching. It’s certainly a choice, even if it’s one that doesn’t completely work.
Bones and All is a tough film to nail down tonally. Tender love and violent death hardly go hand-in-hand. Guadagnino should be applauded for trying, even if it didn’t quite get to where it needed to be.
Bones and All opens in select theaters on November 18th