It is in the merging of so many different genres – coming-of-age, horror, romance, and the road trip movie – that ‘Bones and All’ manages to find a space where its frightening premise can find solid ground. After all, this is essentially a love story about two cannibals and director Luca Guadignino treats them as ordinary and as complex as any other human being. He treats their love and their love story with just as much tenderness and care as if they weren’t troubled by the fact that they have to eat human flesh every now and then.
Based on the novel of the same name by Camille DeAngelis and from a script by David Kaiganich, ‘Bones and All’ never tries to explain our two lead characters’ dietary proclivities. There is a whole world and mythology that surrounds them but the film never makes it about them being – what our lead character later learns – what are known as “eaters.” We follow the story of Maren (played by Taylor Russell) as another incident causes her father and herself to leave town once again. As she is abandoned by her father and left with a cassette tape (the film is set in the 80s in rural America) narrating what he knows about her and “her condition,” she sets out to find her missing mother in a road trip of self-discovery and love.
She meets another eater called Sully, played by Mark Rylance, and then later Timothee Chalamet’s Lee, who Maren finds attractive. Through these two interactions (and a few more as the movie progresses) Maren begins to understand what it means to be an eater and must now navigate growing up alone and different from everyone else.
Except she’s not alone, because Lee has asked her to stay and the two go cross-country to find Maren’s mom. In the dark, lonely, and scary world of being an eater, Maren and Lee find solace and comfort in each other.
Except they eat people.
Beautifully shot by Arseni Khachaturan and with a dynamic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, ‘Bones and All’ manages to shift between tender moments of vulnerability and the frightening brutality of their hunger. Guadagnino is completely unafraid to present a confessional scene about eating someone as a tender and fragile moment for Lee, with Reznor and Ross’ musical score playing it as a sweet romantic moment for Lee and Maren to become more deeply bonded. There are scenes of utter tenderness where both Russell and Chalamet are drenched in blood. It’s incredible the dynamics that are going on in this movie. Guadagnino proves that love is so universal that we can relate to a young couple finding safety and comfort in each other even if they are man-eating cannibals. We even end up rooting for them somehow.
Symbolically, you could take this eater couple as a metaphor for any sort of othering: the fact that they are a mixed race couple, outliers or misfits, you can even turn it into a metaphor for queer relationships, or any sort of undesirable coupling (based on the majority) and the film can be a discussion point about the humanity that can be found between any two people who have genuinely found love. It can be a metaphor for children and teens that are abandoned by their parents who have to fend for themselves and must navigate the world alone with no real moral compass to tell them what is right or wrong.
I prefer to take it exactly for what it is: it’s a love story about two people who eat people. A new race of beings, maybe an evolutionary step, who knows? And the film is the tragic love story of these young eaters, who want to build a life together despite their difference in appetite from the rest of society. It’s strange and weird and even grotesque at some point but in the way that it is shot and presented and performed, it’s just so beautiful and strangely touching and moving.
Russell, Chalamet, and Rylance all deliver such textured and nuanced work. These characters feel lived-in and never feel hokey. There are even scene-stealing moments from Michael Stuhlbarg and Chloe Sevigny.
There’s so much to digest (pun intended) in ‘Bones and All.’ There are so many ways to interpret it but for some reason, I feel most comfortable taking it for face value. The sheer confidence of Guadagnino and his cast and crew to present this film without any sentimentality or camp makes it brimming with humanity that runs counter to dark and brutal imagery. It’s a cinematic feast that you can chew on for days and still find something to ruminate on and feel through.