“Let’s be people.”
Those simple words, uttered by Maren (Taylor Russell) to her partner Lee (Timothée Chalamet) toward the end of director Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All” carry added weight because we know, by this point, that neither of them are what you might call normal people. Maren and Lee are lovers on the run, essentially outlaws, brought together by a common affliction: they both possess an insatiable urge to devour human flesh. Based on Camille DeAngelis’ novel of the same name, “Bones and All” frequently feels like Guadagnino merging his past works—the pangs of unexpected love felt in “Call Me By Your Name,” the uncomfortable tension and blood-soaked images drawn from his “Suspiria” remake—and the result is a gorgeously shot road trip romance across the Midwest, one that uses its unique conceit to comment on the characters’ loneliness.
Opening in Virginia sometime in the 1980s, Maren and her father Frank (an underutilized André Holland) are forced to flee their home after Maren acts on a cannibalistic impulse and bites a girl’s finger at a sleepover she sneaks off to. Unsure of how to help her or protect her anymore, Frank abandons Maren, leaving her only an envelope stuffed with cash, her birth certificate, and a cassette tape detailing her history of cannibalism, beginning when she ate her babysitter at the age of three. Using the information on her birth certificate as a start, Maren sets off to Minnesota find the mother she never knew. Along the way she meets Sully (Mark Rylance), an eccentric older cannibal (in the story they call themselves “eaters”) who teaches Maren to use her senses and informs her that the older she gets, the more she’ll be unable to abstain from eating flesh to survive, and Lee, a young eater who is constantly drifting despite having a mom and sister back home in Kentucky, and with whom she soon falls in love after he joins her on her journey.
Filming primarily in Ohio, Guadagnino’s first film set in America creates a tangible portrait of the Midwest as Maren and Lee drive across Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, Indiana, and back again. The interiors are rustic and lived in, from grand homes with old world charm to dingy, cluttered bungalows, homey diners and run-down carnivals. The mood of the film changes with the landscapes; daylight is comfortable with its green fields, blue skies, and shimmering streams; at night, it feels like anyone could emerge from the ever-encroaching darkness, and shadows of trees play on building walls with a menacing, looming presence. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ largely acoustic score plays well against this backdrop. Guadagnino and cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan center key characters and places in the frame with stunning zoom shots, and the natural beauty is counterbalanced by the eaters’ unnatural tendencies. While “Bones and All” doesn’t revel in gory shots (the camera typically pans away right after the characters begin gnawing on another human’s body), it doesn’t shy away from it either. The characters emerge from their meals with blood smeared across their faces and fronts, and the sound design emphasizes the breaking of skin and crunching of bones to a squirm-inducing extent. And palpable tension and even fear is created leading up to each potential meal because of those factors.
“Bones and All” is at its best when its main focus is tracking the characters and how they interact with each new surrounding and each new person they encounter, and when it uses those moments to call their morality into question. At one point along their journey, Maren and Lee meet a pair of fellow eaters (the fact that they can all smell each other drives them together), only to learn after conversing for a while that one of them isn’t a true eater at all; he likes to eat flesh (his pal refers to him as a “groupie”) but he doesn’t need to to survive, and Maren, who struggles to balance her need to feed with her desire not to unnecessarily hurt anyone, is appalled. “Bones and All” doesn’t probe these matters as deeply as it might have, however, and while Russell and Chalamet individually turn in very strong performances that peel away facets of their characters the longer we watch them and the longer they spend time with each other, their relationship’s initial turn toward romance doesn’t feel like it stems from them naturally. They so clearly need each other by the film’s end, but the start of their relationship feels more like we are being told that than actually feeling that occur. It’s a minor quibble overall; the narrative falters moreso when it tries to tackle more concrete plot points. Maren’s quest to learn more about her mother and why she abandoned her is at least an important journey for her character, and the answers reveal another path Maren’s life might have ventured down. But the subplot involving Sully, established early on as being lonely but drawn to Maren to the point where he feels completely justified in stalking her, feels more often than not that it is shoehorned in to force the lovers toward a predetermined conclusion. Rylance’s performance, made up of fumbling mannerisms and oddball phrases, is appropriately grotesque, but he’s perhaps doing too much for me to be able to definitively say he’s doing good work.
There’s a part of me that wishes that “Bones and All” did end on that line at the top (the final sequence in some ways does feel too much like an afterthought), but that hopeful prospect of a normal existence isn’t really what this story is about. The pair thrives outside of society, not within it. While the more visceral side of the story provides a twist on the typical YA romance, the prevailing feeling we’re left with is the freedom and the ability to be comfortable with themselves the way they are that Maren (so shy and hesitant at the start of the film, and spurned by everyone she knew and loved because of what she is) and Lee have when they are together (I think that’s why Guadagnino ends the film on the specific shot that he does). If you can stomach it, the movie is worth watching to see them reach that point—bones and all.
“Bones and All” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 131 minutes. Rated R.