The collective eighties nostalgia fest that the world is currently binging on is showing no signs of yielding. Each week brings news of a new project set in the 1980s, a sequel to a film popular in the 1980s, or opinions that belong in the 1980s (if even then). However, every so often something comes along that looks nostalgia in the eyes and laughs. It guffaws at its conventions and it spits in the face of people who gleefully quip, “life was so much easier back then!” with a straight face. Bones and All is a lot of things… including this.
Bones and All reunites director Luca Guadagnino with his Call Me by Your Name starlet Timothée Chalamet. Here, he trades the luscious Italian countryside for the Middle American landscapes featuring more than enough gas stations that maintain a beauty of their own with Arseni Khachaturan’s dreamlike cinematography. Guadagnino crafts a story, based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis, of two young outsiders that share a mutual compulsion. The film centres on Taylor Russell’s Maren, a young woman experiencing the trials and tribulations of being a teenager in late 1980s America.
First seen wearing ill-fitting clothing, Maren is invited to a sleepover by a new friend. Wary of her father who would never allow such a thing, she sneaks out after dark through a nailed shut window while her father sleeps on the couch in their humble trailer. Her father, played dutifully by André Holland, had locked her door from the outside, hinting at an unknown danger. She arrives at the friend’s modest house where the girls have just begun doing their nails. When asked to take a closer look at one girl’s nail, Maren inserts the finger into her mouth and bites down. Hard. In the midst of the panic, Maren quickly escapes and runs back home. Upon discovering her with blood dripping from her mouth, her father reacts as if this were familiar territory. It is. They skip town and hold up in an even more depressingly run-down apartment. When Maren wakes up the following morning, her father has disappeared and left her with her birth certificate, some cash, and a tape cassette. Maren is alone and facing an uncertain future, in more ways than one.
Guadagnino crafts the film as a road trip of sorts. Maren’s quest takes her across the Middle American heartland in search of answers. Travelling by bus, she listens to the tape cassette which contains her father’s departing words, as well as the history of her “eating”. The journey is both literal, as well as spiritual. Her journey is to locate her absent mother who her father does not discuss, as the viewer will be made fully aware. Spiritually, it offers her a chance for answers. She recoils when listening to the tape and is clearly unable to understand why she is like this.
Along the way Maren is introduced to a number of other “eaters” as they are known. The morality of the idea of being an eater is handled almost surprisingly seriously. It is not seen as some sort of ‘monster of the week’ plot device. If anything it is handled… tastefully. When Mark Rylance’s Sully is introduced along with a memorable accent, he is seen to almost be a shepherd to the young Maren. He offers guidance as well as a glimmer of his morality, all with unknown intentions. When offering her the chance of a first “meal” there is a clash of codes that offers the viewer insight into her own mindset. Juggling with the weight of her actions as well as the desperation to feed, the film ventures into the deep end with regards to how the audience should react to the sight of the two characters feasting on a person. How can an audience not react with anything but abject horror? Especially when accompanied by the noisiest eating in history! This is what Guadagnino is banking on, however. You’re right where he wants you.
Chalamet’s character, Lee, is introduced in a memorable sequence. Locking eyes in a grocery store, the two characters are immediately attracted to each other in more than one sense. An iffy plot device means its not just love at first sight. When a loutish drunk intimidates a nearby mother, Maren call him out, only for Lee to swoop in and lead him away. A supposedly noble deed soon turns out to be more than just chivalry. Lee and Maren may not know each other yet but their paths have clashed.
The two agree to head in the same direction, and it is through this voyage of blood and tarmac that the two become something more than just outsiders in need of company. In finding out about each other, it is the viewer who becomes drawn into their world, a true achievement of the film’s direction. The film doesn’t just thrust them in the face of audiences and expect them to automatically feel something for them. It asks them to forget the fact that they’ve just witnessed them on all fours ripping into a human body. To do that takes more than just a Chalamet smirk.
Chalamet may be the darling of Hollywood, but it is Taylor Russell who excels in a role that asks for so much from an actor. She encapsulates a sense of internal naiveté as well as balancing it out with an exterior suit of armour. She manages to erase all pre-conceived notions and crafts a character whose compulsions seem secondary in a compelling performance. Such a raw performance does certainly remind audiences of a certain co-star of hers. Akin to Chalamet’s breakthrough coming after Call Me by Your Name, one can definitely make the assumption that Russell will approach an exciting trajectory.
Chalamet of course does what he does best in capturing the implicit vulnerability in his characters. He employs the recognisable qualities present in his other performances and his relationship with Guadagnino is a match made in celluloid heaven. Luca captures him in his purest form and gives a character like Lee layers that are meticulously revealed throughout.
Bones and All is at its best when it holds back and lets the audience extrapolate on the morsels presented to it. The “eater” way of life offers a number of analytical possibilities, but the most important feature of it is the fact that it is played as straight as an arrow. It is presented akin to how a film revolving around people with an addiction would engage with their compulsions. In fact, a reading into the ways in which characters go about their needs to eat is more than comparable to the need to satisfy cravings and giving into compulsions. Characters will go to any and all lengths to get what they need. Another avenue of approaching eaters is to examine the role in which intergenerational trauma plays a part. The ‘sins of the father’ is a well worn trope and can appear heavy handed in the film throughout but also provides an interesting reflection for the viewer to consider when met with multiple sources.
With endless interpretations, the film’s dissection of love is a defining feature. Much of the film is dedicated to the search for love, and the unrequited manifestations contained therein. Maren balances her struggles with her cannibalistic nature against the search for a parent long since out of the picture. Her runaway father professes his love for her and his apparent actions that are dictated over an audio cassette speak to the lengths that he was willing to go. The reminders of her youth cause her to stop the tape, as any person would do when reminded of past indiscretions.
The difference for Maren is that her indiscretions are objectively unforgivable. Lee himself suffers from an experience in his past and is desperately searching for validation. The wall he surrounds himself with has only one fatal flaw, Maren’s determination to break through and help him. The bond that they share may be the only thing maintaining their humanity.
Guadagnino’s sympathy for his starlets almost borders on empathy. Bones and All is a film that requires an awful lot from its performers. The interrogation of morality challenges audiences with the right performer needed to do it justice. Maren’s own reckoning with her compulsions is a major feature and her wayward moral code becomes a metaphor for the troubles of youth in itself. When compared with other eaters who may or may not have codes of their own, the conflict between the extremes make for an interesting discussion.
This is the Twilight that your parents wouldn’t let you watch.
Another reunion for Call Me by Your Name fans sees Michael Stuhlbarg appear as a particularly coded eater with an aversion to personal hygiene. Pitting his own views on consuming someone’s bones (in the least conspicuously sexual scene in the film) against Maren’s disbelief further signals that the young eater has a limit. Some eaters are cruel in their hunt for nourishment, but it is their justification that offers intrigue. In the end, all eaters eat, regardless of their way of acquiring the food. When cannibals question each other’s moral judgement it does make for an entertaining spectacle, but at the same time one wishes for there to be more of it featured.
Bones and All certainly belongs in the endless canon of films depicting young love, albeit in a slightly more brutal fashion. This is the Twilight that your parents wouldn’t let you watch. While the film can certainly be interpreted in many different directions, it is the fact that there is so little decided with absolute assurance that makes the film what it is. In a move to make it obscenely clear that the film wears its ‘Outsider’ badge on its sleeve, the film can at times feel heavy handed in its employment of bright-eyed dialogue to sell the story.
However, the emphasis on character and their respective performances elevates the film to something more. Setting it in Reagan Era Middle America certainly offers a sizeable escape route for plausibility, but also ensures the interpretations are plain and obvious. Sexuality is a major player throughout the film with Guadagnino employing DEFCON 1 levels of sexual energy throughout, from the first bite, to the very last. The act of eating itself is closely associated with sex and treated as such with characters fawning over a “first time”. Even the ideations of characters thinking that they were “the only one” harkens back to the time frame of repressed sexuality. Validation truly comes in many different ways.
Bones and All is a beautifully shot vista of youthful complexities but is not a perfect film. It runs over a pothole or two with its storytelling and can at times adhere a little too closely to its influences. Sully feels ripped from a different story altogether. One character’s fate feels like a total stumble. The third act is uneven and its ending, while maintaining an inevitable feeling, feels nonetheless abruptly self-indulgent.
The film works best as an allegory for love and its unstable nature. To give yourself over to someone completely isn’t as easy as it looks. And perhaps that’s why it takes a film that Armie Hammer may have wished for to tell it. The sequences of cannibalism can be brutal but rest assured that they are not the most gag inducing moment in the film. That title goes to… well… its probably best experienced visually. All this writer can say is this: Luca hand her a tissue for the love of god! My eyes!