Any other year, a coming of age love story about two young cannibals on a road trip through the midwest would be buried in the depth of Amazon Prime horror. But it’s 2022, and this is the year of risks in cinema. Say what you want about the Marvel Studios box office dominance, but I’ve seen almost 200 films this year only like 6 of them are superhero films. So as much as we want to be old man yells at cloud about the loss of box office smashes, “Bones and All” wouldn’t exist in those times. We’re all the better for its existence, though. Because it is another example of the truth that people who push that box office narrative often miss: there are great movies out there, you just have to be willing to watch them.
“Bones and All” checks a lot of the fresh and risky boxes, the ones that people swear they want (original ideas and stories) but refuse to actually seek them out to watch them. The argument is cyclical, because we complain there’s nothing to watch when it fact there’s plenty. We just can’t help but use box office earnings (an outdated measurement anyway) as a barometer for what’s out there.
This sounds like a tangent, but it’s deeply relevant to “Bones and All,” because even in its limited release, it hasn’t been doing well at the theaters. But reframing it as a Marvel Studios vs Everything Else is the wrong take. “Bones and All” is a strange film that simply isn’t for everyone. It’s essentially Julia Ducournau “light,” and if you don’t know what that means then “Bones and All” probably isn’t for you. It is a small, bloody, genre mashing film that uses violence as a vehicle for love, connection, and identity. It’s a body horror film, a road trip film, a coming of age movie, and yes a love story. For being relatively small scale film, “Bones and All” is ambitious, and largely succeeds in all the things it sets out to do.
Luca Guadagnino’s allegorical framework of cannibalism to convey the concept of the otherly works better than you might expect. He treats his characters as more of a representation for almost anyone marginalized or demonized for being outsiders. The 80s setting feels very intentional, allowing viewers to substitute a multitude of meanings for the cannibal metaphor, the most obvious of which could be a queer allegory. It’s not overt, but it most certainly fits, allowing “Bones and All” to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Though the urge to feed is great, “Bones and All” brilliantly adds a layer of humanity to its characters. They may have violent, unusual cravings, but they still crave the same things we do, too; love, connection, and belonging.
Directed by Guadagnino from a screenplay by David Kajganich, “Bones and All” is based on the book by Camille DeAngelis of the same name. The film follows Maren (Taylor Russell), a young girl living with her father in Virginia in the 1980s. Unable to control her urges for human flesh, she attacks a friend at a slumber party and must immediately leave town. Her father, fully aware of her strange appetite, decides to leave her to fend for herself and find her own way, leaving her some money, her birth certificate, and a tape recorder with everything he knows about her and her mother. With nowhere to go, Maren decides to make her way to her mother’s birthplace in hopes of meeting her and finding out why she is the way she is. On her journey, she meets Lee (Timothée Chalamet), another young cannibal running from his past and searching for his own purpose. Through their shared experiences and cravings, they begin to develop a deep relationship. However, though Maren is glad to discover she’s not the only one, not all cannibals are the same. And even as they may be predators, there are still plenty of things that threaten their new found connection.
Overall, “Bones and All” is well executed, willing to take its time and present its narrative with restraint and patience. Despite having some pretty gnarly blood and gore, the film is much more of a character piece than outright shock horror. Guadagnino smartly chooses to leave much of body horror up to the audience’s imagination, giving us just enough to be grossed out but cutting away just before feeling indulgent. “Bones and All” is NOT the “Terrifier 2” of teenage, cannibal love stories. It is far more subtle and purposeful in its approach, with the cannibalism truly serving as more of a thematic element than something integral to the story being told. Maren and Lee could be into anything odd or different and the story would still unfold relatively the same. This isn’t to say that this vehicle of violence isn’t effective, because as sparingly as it is used, its execution is downright masterful.
“Bones and All” doesn’t work this well without the terrific performances from its leads. Chalamet continues to make a believer out of me, willing to take on a variety of roles that challenge his range as a performer. This might actually be my favorite performance from him so far, and I realize I’m late to the Chalemet curve but he shines bright here. He is also paired with Russell, who’s quickly making a name for herself with a small but mighty filmography. The two have electric chemistry, and sell the love and connection between their characters. Their performances are what elevate “Bones and All” from a strange, off putting story to an endearing, shockingly relatable one. We all want to be loved, we all want to share our experiences with someone, and more than anything, no one wants to be alone. Russell and Chalamet deliver a deeply human performance, and truly demand audience investment in these characters and love as we watch it blossom.
And then there’s Mark Rylance as Sully (an older cannibal that Maren meets on her journey that makes her very uncomfortable despite him being the first other she meets), once again proving no one does weird and creepy quite like Mark. I find him to be off putting at the best of times, with only “The Outfit” being the most tolerable of his outings. But in “Bones and All” his quirk and truly unsettling Sully work, and Rylance is a menacing figure that looms large over the whole film. His screen time may be limited, by he makes the most of every scene and chews through scenery (pun intended) every chance he gets. Rylance’s strange choices fit perfectly here, and even as a character we are clearly not suppose to root for, he too adds a layer of empathy and humanity to an otherwise monstrous character. There’s a genuine sadness to him, and even though he is a threat you feel for him at times. These conflicting emotions in an otherwise stock style character is a testament to how good Rylance really can be, and his creativity and skilled chops make him one of the most intriguing and integral parts. There’s some other solid supporting performances, and for the sake of not spoiling anything for anyone I will not reveal their names nor their character’s relevance to the overall story. But this film has no shortage of terrific performances, from its leads all the way down to single scene appearances.
“Bones and All” is not for everyone, but who it’s for it is a triumph. Packed with deep themes, powerful performances and stunning cinematography from Arseni Khachaturan (who’s composition is gorgeous, timely and transporting) the film is a resonating story about wholly others searching for their place in a world that doesn’t want them. The metaphorical framework of cannibalism only works if you’re willing to let it, so it’s best to approach “Bones and All” with an open mind and an empty stomach.
I didn’t realize how much I loved “Bones and All” until it wouldn’t leave my mind for days after seeing it. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since leaving the theater, and have been filled with the urge to see it again to better understand all this has to offer. And boy does it have a lot to offer, packed with enough to satisfy the most unquenchable appetites of cinema.
As one of the characters says, “There’s before bones and all….and there’s AFTER bones and all.” He may be talking about actual cannibalism in context, but it’s a great summation of this as a film, too.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Bones and All” is now playing in theaters. You can watch the trailer below.