Venice: That would be Taylor Russell. Director Luca Guadagnino does for her what he did for Timothée in “Call Me by Your Name”
Anton Chekhov once wrote to a colleague: “Never place a loaded gun on the stage if it is not going to explode. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t want to keep. So when Michael Stuhlbarg describes to two cannibalistic young lovers the transcendent experience of consuming someone “bones and all,” he loads carcass-shaped bullets into Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic gun.
The lovers include Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet), both “eaters,” with a craving for human flesh passed down through their respective family lines. We are first introduced to Maren as a seemingly shy wallflower in a rundown high school. Instantly, there’s a slight eeriness to its hallways with blood-red lockers and walls lined with flat watercolors of American landscapes that the film will soon call home.
Maren is invited over to a friendly classmate’s house to sleep over but her father (Andre Holland) won’t allow it, locking her in his bedroom with the windows nailed up. Teens being teens, she can’t help but defy his orders and sneaks off for a girls night out. The film wears its homo-eroticism on its sleeve throughout, with the sexual chemistry between Maren and an unsuspecting teenager under the table reaching a climax as she shows Maren her manicure. Maren gently places her finger in her mouth, straining for a moment before biting down with all her might, blood splattering her chin and onto an oversized ’80s sweater.
Her father is furious but not surprised, yelling at her to grab what she can in the next three minutes before fleeing before the police can find them. Holland, even with screen time limited to the first 10 minutes, the occasional dreamy flashback and audio on tape, is fascinating as a beleaguered parent grappling with the limits of his own responsibility. On Maren’s 18th birthday, she wakes to find him gone, leaving behind the tape with an explanation of why he left her as well as her birth certificate. Maren returns to the tape over and over again, and each time Holland’s words are heartbreaking, filled to the brim with pain and regret.
Birth certificate in hand, and now with a clue as to who the mother she never met might be, Maren sets off across the country to find answers about who, or what, she is. On her first stop in Maryland, she encounters her first “eating” companion in Sully, played with Mark Rylance’s signature aplomb. The two share a meal from a freshly expired elderly woman who evokes Leatherface’s unholy domesticity in the final act of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. The two “eaters” share heightened senses and an acrid smell of death seems to emanate from the screen. This is the first indication that Guadagnino’s carefully curated aesthetic will touch all five senses to create an absolute feast.
Blood runs on gothic mahogany in rooms upholstered in chintzy floral wallpaper and 80s tchotchkes, further enhanced by the movie’s stunning sound design. Some scenes bring detached cannibalistic gnaws, others have crescendo winds across the American plains. The soundtrack, largely suited to the period and featuring Duran Duran and Kiss, is used perfectly throughout. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ track for the film, “(You Made it Feel Like) Home,” pierces through, in awful harmony with the haunting tragedy of the film itself.
After identifying Sully’s extremely bad vibes, including an 8-foot rope of human hair (inspired by the movie’s funniest moment: “My God. It’s a choice!”), Maren sets off again to meet Lee, a another “eater”. The chemistry between the two leads is lovely, but the greatest romance always seems to be between Chalamet and Guadagnino as the director shoots his face so adoringly it’s hard not to be moved by their bond. .
What follows clearly pays homage to Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’, with the two traveling across the country through golden hour vistas, but the film is much more tender towards its protagonists, filming everything from d from a tentative first kiss in a slaughterhouse to a swim in a Kentucky lake with a childlike sense of wonder. Most striking is when our two lovers sit on the edge of a Nebraska valley, where Chalamet shows his almost unrivaled ability to weep softly. There’s nothing unconventional about showing two lonely souls falling in love by having them stare into each other’s eyes against a sprawling landscape (arguably Campion did better in last year’s “The Power of the Dog”) , but Guadagino still offers us a radical romance impossible to resist.
The film is based on a 2015 YA novel by Camille DeAngelis, and like the source material, it adheres to some coming-of-age clichés. Aside from jaw-dropping aesthetics, macabre body horror, and compelling performances, the film hits many well-worn markers of road trips into adulthood, including some uncanny parallels to 2002’s Britney Spears vehicle.” Crossroads”.
Even with this familiarity, it’s possible to simply get lost in the beautiful detail of “Bones & All.” The costumes especially build beyond the markers typical of an 80s setting. Maren’s distressed floral sundresses and Betty Page’s haircut and the ripped jeans and pearl button cardigan of Lee give the impression of operating in a grimy Reagan-era underclass where everyone has thrown off the shackles of heteronormativity in the fanciest way possible. Best of all is Stuhlbarg appearing with greasy, dirt-coated hair, shirtless under ill-fitting overalls. Meanwhile, Rylance wears a feathered trilby and his lapels are covered in shiny, slightly militaristic insignia. It makes him look like a man driven mad by the horrors of war – even if that war is with his own insatiable desire for human flesh.
Unlike the rigid structures around vampires, zombies, and werewolves, Guadagnino has no real rules in this world beyond what the eaters impose on themselves. Some take pleasure in killing and consuming their fellow human beings, others attack only the dying, the cruel or the dispossessed. This fluidity brings even higher and more compelling moral stakes to the central duo. Their options are usually limited to eating humans, killing themselves, or locking themselves up; beyond that, they are adrift, not knowing what use they or each other could be made to. It’s a love story of two people traveling through a world while being told “the world of love doesn’t want monsters”.
If this turns out to be a star for Taylor Russell, as “Call Me By Your Name” proved for Chalamet, then it will be well-deserved, a testament to Guadagnino’s casting prowess (an infamous alleged cannibal aside) . The film successfully opens up to a myriad of readings, potentially addressing everything from intergenerational trauma to queer love to addiction. But “Bones & All” is fundamentally a beautifully realized and devastating tragic romance that, at several points, would have Chekhov crying himself when the trigger is pulled.
“Bones & All” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. MGM will release it in theaters on Wednesday, November 23.