It’s probably fair to say that Bones And All, from Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino, isn’t the most groundbreaking concept in the world. It plays a lot, in fact, like the radio-friendly edit of Raw, Julia DuCournau’s 2016 coming-of-age tale about cannibalism and burgeoning sexuality at veterinary college. Yet freshness of concept probably wasn’t foremost on Guadagnino’s mind when he set out to direct David Kajganich’s adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’s 2015 novel. (Sidenote: do you think Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name star, Armie Hammer, ever tried to talk him out of doing a cannibal story?)
Guadagnino doesn’t take teen cannibalism further (trying to be more “out there” than Julia DuCournau seems ill-advised at best) so much as let it breathe. He finds the beauty in it, the power of two outsiders pitted against the world. He’s a sensualist, who seems more concerned with how characters in extraordinary situations might act than with their larger implications, or how they might be shoehorned into an allegory (an almost unheard-of quality among pitch-driven, concept-first American filmmakers these days). To put it in less film critic-y terms, Guadagnino is excellent at shooting gorgeous films about pretty people doing weird things… and that’s nice.
Taylor Russell plays Maren, a late high schooler who in the first scene gets invited to a sleepover — a big deal for her, being the new girl at school. Things are going well (and vaguely sapphicly?) until Maren tries bite off a girl’s finger and eat it. She runs out of the house and back to her own house, where her father (played by the always great André Holland) sees the blood on her shirt, immediately understands what has happened, and gets them all packed up and ready to split town in minutes. Clearly not his first flesh-eating rodeo.
Maren is a bit remote as a protagonist, but with purpose. She’s a young girl on the cusp of adulthood trying to figure out who she is, which is difficult under any circumstances, but especially so when your insatiable craving for flesh forces you into an itinerant lifestyle under a series of aliases. Cannibalism as a vehicle for feelings of adolescent alienation, the search for identity, womanhood, and burgeoning sexuality has, as I said, already been covered in Raw (yes, I know Bones And All the book came out first, please don’t leave me this comment six times). But Bones And All also adds a pleasing dose of lore. Maren isn’t the only cannibal in the world, see. There are others out there, and they can recognize each other by scent. Sorta like highlanders but also sorta like dogs (it feels right).
Maren learns all this from the first fellow meat-eater she meets, Sully, played by Mark Rylance, who seems to be as knowledgeable about the cannibal lifestyle as he is eccentric. Rylance’s performance is absolutely electric, a freak mix of conviviality, vague sexual menace, and hobo self-talk, like if “Ol’ Gil” from The Simpsons was a carnie who might eat you. Simply wonderful.
Maren desperately needs companionship, a support system, parental figures, but those qualities are almost impossible to extricate from people (read: men) who might want to rob, fuck, or kill her. She has essentially the same reservations about Lee, played by Timothée Chalamet, a sort of fashion goth take on Shia LaBeouf in American Honey, but in this case her natural tripidation is undercut by sexual desire. Is it really goodness she’s sensing in this guy or is she just swayed by a jawline that could cut glass? In the end, all we have is our intuition, and companionship is always a leap of faith.
Bones And All largely consists of Maren’s cross-country journey of self-discovery, complete with many gorgeous misty early morning landscapes, with state postal codes superimposed on the screen every time she enters a new one (interspersed with the occasional gory feeding). Road movies have a natural inertia, and Guadagnino is wise to just sort of let us marinate in the moments. In 2022, movies incorporating the fantastic or exploring the supernatural almost always try to skip past the people to drive home the themes. It’s always about “where is this going and what does it mean??” to the point that it can flatten the humanity it purports to celebrate.
Guadagnino’s movies are a healthy antidote to this kind of anti-impressionism. In the end, occasional gore notwithstanding, Bones And All plays less like Raw than it does a cannibal-infused American Honey if it were directed by an Italian guy who was obsessed with Timothée Chalamet. It’s an imagery-first kind of film, and it delivers quite a few that are probably going to stick with me for a while.