Bones and All – movie review

Luca Guadagnino is a singular filmmaker. After three intimate dramas in I am Love (2009), A Bigger Splash (2015) and Call Me By Your Name (2017), he pivoted to the blood-soaked remake of Suspiria (2018). Now he’s back with Bones and All, a film that merges his gentle, lyrical style with another hefty dose of horror.

I read a brief synopsis before seeing the film, and based on that, I didn’t expect it was for me. But Guadagnino crafts an intelligent, moving story that nods to genre but ultimately leaves it behind. Screenwriter David Kajganich (who wrote both Suspiria and A Bigger Splash) skillfully adapts Camille DeAngelis’ novel of the same title for the screen. The result is something like what might happen if Kelly Reichardt (First Cow) made a zombie movie.

The film operates from the premise that cannibals (euphemistically referred to as “eaters”) walk among us. Not psychopaths, but otherwise normal people with an innate compulsion to eat other humans. In the world of the film, they’re a kind of sub-culture. And like any sub-culture, its members display a range of behaviours. Some have the desire but won’t act on it: some will act on it if the opportunity presents but not otherwise; while some are dangerous monsters who will kill to get what they want. The film follows the characters as they navigate this moral spectrum, seen through the prism of inter-generational trauma.

The principal character is Maren (Taylor Russell), a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. Early on, it’s clear she’s an “eater”. Her father (André Holland) does his best to protect her, but he’s ill- equipped to deal with Maren’s peculiar circumstances. Soon after Maren’s 18th birthday, he disappears; leaving her to fend for herself. But he leaves behind her birth certificate to help her understand who she is. Maren’s mother hasn’t been around for years. But when she sees her mother was originally from Minnesota, she decides to travel there from Maryland in hopes of finding her. But with little money, it’s going to be a tough trip.

Maren decides bus is the most economical, so she gets a ticket to a stop she can afford. With no resources and in an unfamiliar city, she decides to sleep rough. But on the street, she meets Sully (Mark Rylance), an odd character who offers her a place to stay. However, that place isn’t his. Turns out Sully is an “eater” too, and he’s found an older woman close to death in her home. When she eventually passes, well… you can imagine. Despite Sully’s apparent kindness, Maren is leery of him and she remains determined to find her mother, so she hits the road once more. At a convenience store, she encounters Lee (Timothée Chalamet). When Lee stands up to a bully, Maren senses something about him. When the bully disappears, Maren’s suspicions are confirmed – Lee is also an “eater”. When Lee takes the man’s car keys, they have transport; and they agree to travel to Minnesota together to find Maren’s mother.

Despite the high-concept premise, Bones and All is ultimately about families – the damage they can do and the healing they can bring. If you can look past the cannibalism aspect, you may see echoes of Romeo & Juliet about the relationship between Maren and Lee. The film also evokes the idea of the American road, epitomised in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and in movies like Nomadland and The Straight Story. Arseni Khachaturan’s evocative cinematography conveys the grit and majesty of the American landscape, deftly complemented by a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Mank). You might also read a political element into it – the film is set during the 1980s, and the cannibal aspects of the film might allude to brutal effects of the “Reaganomics” policies of the time.

But there’s no getting away from the fact the film is about cannibals. And while the parallels to familiar tropes like werewolves, zombies and vampires are apparent, there’s just something about the idea that’s just inherently more confronting. For all the film’s beauty and lyricism, it contains scenes of pretty extreme gore and violence. The juxtaposition of these is a crucial element, but for many, the horror will be just too much.

Taylor Russell (Escape Room: Tournament of Champions) does a brilliant job as the naive Maren. She develops real chemistry with Timothée Chalamet (The French Dispatch), who does yet another fine turn as the more worldly Lee. André Holland (High Flying Bird) is restrained in a small role as Maren’s father, while Chloë Sevigny (The Dead Don’t Die) makes a brief but telling appearance as Maren’s mother. Guadagnino regular Michael Stuhlbarg appears as a rather menacing drifter (alongside noted director David Gordon Green). But Mark Rylance (The Phantom of the Open) overshadows them all in a memorable performance (against type) as the creepy Sully.

So, yes, Bones and All is a horror movie; but in many ways, it’s not. Whether it’s for you really depends on whether you can get past its cannibal aspects. If you can, you may just find this intelligent, gently paced film is about a lot more than eating people – it’s about what it means to be a person.

David Edwards

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