This review originally ran September 2, 2022, in conjunction with the film’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
You’ve got to hand it to Luca Guadagnino — the man cannot coast. So ever since the Italian filmmaker found himself on the American prestige track, he’s done just about anything to get the hell off. Remake “Suspiria” as a somber meditation on historical memory and survivor’s guilt? OK, sure – but only with Tilda Swinton in old man drag, so people won’t take things too seriously.
Reunite “Call Me By Your Name” players Timothée Chalamet and Michael Stuhlbarg for a new coming-of-age film? Great! Make it a cannibal road movie with over-the-top gore — that’ll show the hoi polloi.
But it turns out that the joke’s on Guadagnino — because at the Venice Film Festival on Friday, the audience ate “Bones and All” up.
One could easily see why. Genuinely frightening in stretches and with the creep-o-meter jacked up to 1,000 all the way through, “Bones and All” is somehow more and less than a simple horror flick, and not quite a rambling romance. Though adapted by David Kajganich from Camille DeAngelis’ novel, Guadagnino’s film instead feels more like a bet, a mad science experiment to see if “Raw” can coexist with “Badlands” in the body of a gooey Young Adult love tale. The end result is unstable –- too unstable to hold — but the attempt, quite literally, takes guts.
It’s morning in Reagan’s America, and Maren (Taylor Russell) is off to school. She seems like a normal teenager, withdrawn but well liked all the same. So why does she live with her dear papa (Andre Holland, terrific in a small, mostly-there-for-exposition kind of role) in a sparse trailer that can be fled in three minutes flat? And why does he lock her in at night? The answer comes in a worst-case scenario sleepover that punctuates the prologue with a bloody burst, while striking a precise footing between teen melodrama and Grand Guignol shocks that the rest of the film often struggles to find anew.
In any case, soon enough the young girl is out on her own, hitting the open road with nothing but her wits and taste for human flesh to guide her. That is, until she meets Sully (Mark Rylance, looking more like Harry Dean Stanton than Harry Dean ever could, and chewing on a thick southern drawl in between bites of other, more illicit delicacies). Reading from the Y.A. playbook culled from “Star Wars” to Harry Potter to “X-Men,” our guide Sully corrects an incorrect assumption. Maren, you see, is not a misfit outcast all alone in the world. Well, technically she is, but she’s also a star in a much greater constellation, a member of a gifted and secret community hidden in plain sight throughout the Great Plains. She is an Eater. And of course, so is he.
Rules and initiation rites follow, but the main takeaway is this: Eaters don’t eat fellow Eaters. So by the time the tweaked out Lee (Timothée Chalamet, chalamaying) enters the scene, you can rest assured the only tension between the young pair will be of the romantic sort. Sparks fly, people die and cannibal mouths are fed. They make a good team, and so they set out, two drifters off to see the world.
For all the lore behind it, the road-movie moves at a meandering pace, dawdling in this or that Midwest hamlet, stopping for short visits with Chloe Sevigny, Jessica Harper and (oddly enough) director David Gordon Green.
When Stuhlbarg shows up – dressed like a castoff from “The Hills Have Eyes,” as if to make clear the vast gulf between his and Chalamet’s previous onscreen appearance – the character actor makes the film’s title clear. To go bones and all, he explains, is to go all in – to ascend toward a higher level of cannibalism by leaving no trace behind. The concept is symbolic – this is a film about a young and all-consuming love affair – only it also quite neatly describes Guadagnino’s style.
“Bones and All” sees the filmmaker go big – hell, it sees everyone go big, from Rylance’s turbo-charged weirdo to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ wall-to-wall score. The scares are real and lasting, the romantic interludes swoon, and the shots of rugged American grandeur are never too far off. Even apart from the tonal swings from prairie reverie to epic romance to body horror, the project treats its central conceit with similar “Why Not Both?” gluttony.
The cannibalism here is both metaphoric and all too literal. At separate (and sometimes simultaneous) intervals, our young Eaters are symbolic stand-ins for drug addiction, preying on the already socially marginalized, and thus at risk; they evoke queer culture and the quiet communities that made life in Reagan’s America livable; they are avatars of generational trauma, of the (once again, literal and symbolic) scars parents leave on their children.
But wait! They are also Anne Rice’s vampires, made modern with carnal connotations. (Gazing at his co-star with a solemn, saucy look, Chalamet asks: “When was your first?”) They do all that and more, filling whatever hook the scene calls for and then moving on down the road. And at the end of the day, aren’t they a pair of kids hungry for life?
They are, of course. And so is the overall film. When taken altogether it makes for one particularly rich meal – well prepared, but rather difficult to digest.
“Bones and All” opens Nov. 23 in U.S. theaters via MGM/UA.