Having made Call Me by Your Name together, Timothée Chalamet and Luca Guadagnino reunite for another tender tale of budding romance. Once again, it’s adapted from a novel – Bones & All by Camille DeAngelis – and once again it is set in the 1980s, but their new collaboration is different in one key respect: it has a lot more shots of people ripping apart human flesh with their teeth.
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Taylor Russell stars as Maren, a shy 18-year-old schoolgirl who has just moved to rural Virginia with her single father (André Holland). One of the school’s popular girls invites her over for a sleepover, and all seems to be going well until Guadagnino delivers a moment guaranteed to make you gasp and/or groan: Maren sucks her new friend’s finger, and then bites down on it until you can hear the crunch. Her father has known about her unstoppable cannibal urges for years, but he can’t deal with them any longer. When he abandons her, Maren buys a Greyhound bus ticket, and heads across the country in search of her long-lost mother.
She soon learns that her strange compulsion isn’t as unusual as she had thought. A rumpled, pony-tailed drifter called Sully (Mark Rylance at his creepiest) tells her that she is an “eater”: not only will her hunger intensify as she gets older, but she will learn to smell other eaters from a distance. He offers her some sage advice, but the sight of him in his white vest and underpants, chomping a recently deceased old woman, is almost enough to convince her that he might not be an ideal mentor, and his custom of braiding his victims’ hair into a long rope is the clincher. The next eater who sniffs her out is a far more promising prospect. Despite having some unsavoury habits of his own, Lee is a cool, charming, skinny young rebel played by Chalamet, so he and Maren take a blue pick-up truck from someone who, shall we say, no longer needs it, and this blood-drenched Bonnie and Clyde hit the road together.
What’s captivating about Bones & All is that it is so understated. The first few gory scenes suggest that Guadagnino has made an outrageous black comedy that gets its startled laughs and screams by contrasting the conventions of a coming-of-age romance with those of an X-rated monster movie. But soon Bones & All becomes entirely straight-faced. It isn’t a horror film or a comedy, it’s a sincere, sweet indie road movie that happens to feature bloodthirsty serial killers – ie, it’s Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, except with some of the most intense sequences of graphic violence imaginable. There is no explanation for the eaters’ taboo diet, no mythology attached to it, no mention of vampires or zombies, and no government agencies or monster hunters on the couple’s trail. Pathological cannibalism is just one of those quirks that some people are born with, and the mild-mannered Maren and Lee talk about it as matter-of-factly as they might talk about being lactose intolerant.
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Taylor Russell, Mark Rylance
Film length: 2 hr 10m
They’re surprisingly good company. Various grisly shocks aside, the mood is relaxed and optimistic, and the magnetic Russell has no problem holding the viewer’s attention in every scene: this should be as much of a star-making film for her as Call Me by Your Name was for Chalamet. There are a couple of fabulous cameos, too. Another eater, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is almost as memorably crazed as Sully is.
Eventually, though, Guadagnino’s decision to be so earnest about the gruesome subject matter works against the film, rather than for it. He and his screenwriter, David Kajganish, haven’t put in an urgent plot or any amazing revelations, so we’re left watching two supernatural cannibals meandering around sleepy Midwestern and Southeastern backwater towns for a couple of hours, and that raises the question of whether the hopes and fears of two non-supernatural non-cannibals might have been more compelling. It’s not as if the flesh-munching is an illuminating metaphor for addiction or greed or sexual orientation or anything else. There are hints at these themes, but ultimately, the flesh-munching is just flesh-munching, so it becomes difficult to take the fantastical scenario as seriously as Guadagnino does. He’s certainly made a distinctive and daringly perverse film, but there isn’t much meat on its bones.
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