Bones and All (2022)
Written by David Kajganich
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
A recurring trope in American cinema is the story of a pair of lovers, lost in a world without much to offer them, traveling across desolate landscapes and having strange encounters. Most notably, Arthur Penn told us this story with Bonnie & Clyde and Terence Malick with Badlands; the list is ever-growing. More often than not, these stories serve as commentary on the plight of the current youth, a means to examine what makes it challenging to be coming into adulthood at a particular time and how young people respond to these obstacles. Luca Guadagnino’s latest, Bones and All, is one of those movies. He’s not brand new to these ideas; they were explored with a lot of depth in his HBO mini-series We Are Who We Are, albeit with a more grounded concept.
Maren (Taylor Russell) is a teenager always on the move in 1980s America. She’s settling into a high school in Virginia when a dark impulse her father (Andre Holland) has tried to control resurfaces. Maren has the compulsion to eat human flesh and has been doing it since she was seven. Driven to a breaking point, her father abandons her, leaving his only child a few bucks and a cassette tape where he explains watching her grow up from his perspective. Maren only has her birth certificate to go by and decides to track down the mother who abandoned her before this hunger emerged, searching for answers to her plight. Along the way, she meets other Eaters (as they call themselves). There’s Lee (Timothee Chalamet), a boy close to her age who will become her first love. Jake and Brad (Michael Stuhlbarg and David Gordon Green) are an upsetting duo that implies a more sinister intent. The most unsettling is Sully (Mark Rylance), the oldest Eater Maren will meet and one who lacks profoundly in social norms, trying to project fatherly warmth but leaving the girl feeling like she may be next on the menu.
I have never been a massive fan of vampire/cannibal media. I’m not opposed to it; these tropes have never appealed to me like witches or Lovecraftian horror does. However, with Guadagnino at the helm, I was eager to see what he made of them. The result is a visually gorgeous movie; whether you like his stories or not, it is inarguably that he produces some of the best-looking films currently being released in theaters. He treasures the glory of magic hour and makes sure some of the critical moments in the narrative take place when the sun is at its perfect position, bathing our lovers in a dreamlike atmosphere. They are both of the world but transcendent when focused on their love. Guadagnino’s style is expressionist in that parts of the movie are literally happening, but big chunks are meant to be seen as poetic, conveying Maren’s innermost feelings.
Guadagnino is talking about the failure of adults to serve as constructive mentors to young people. Every adult Maren encounters fails her in some way. Her father abandons her. Sully is anything but a father figure but a constant looming threat. Her grandmother (Jessica Harper) wants nothing to do with this grandchild she’s never met. All Maren has is Lee, and all he has is Maren and his little sister (Anna Cobb). These children rely on each other for emotional support because the adults have lost their minds. After spending ten years as an elementary school teacher, staying in different levels of contact with some of my former students, and watching how public schools are collapsing because of COVID-19 and its many subsequent effects, I can say that the director has hit the nail on the head. Most adults cannot guide these young people into some semblance of a productive future. It’s a mix of a society that has been infantilizing adults through how they are treated as workers and a collective giving up by multiple generations. They have resigned themselves to the idea that the decline is inevitable and have zero empathy for young people striving for the opposite.
Like many of us, Guadagnino was impressed with Taylor Russell’s complex & emotional performance in Waves. Under the direction of Trey Edward Shults, Russell showcased a lot of what she would be asked to do in Bones and All. Both characters are emerging from childhood into adulthood, discovering love for the first time, and struggling with adults who don’t seem to have a clue. Her performance here is so subtle and so perfect. Maren is socially awkward but not in an exaggerated cartoon manner. The girl has lived her life around people but has never lived like them, with her constant moving to avoid the consequences of feasting. Her mannerisms are stiff and cold, but there’s still a deep curiosity about other people, especially ones around her age. I saw a lot of movement and speech cadence you might observe with a neurodivergent person.
That acting style carries over to each Eater we meet throughout the film. Each of them is stunted in their psychological and emotional development yet exhibits this in various ways. Lee is like a giant bomb of emotions, quick to tears. Jake doesn’t quite understand the creepiness of his behavior, reveling in the act of eating. When he’s ditched by our two central characters, I do not get the sense he wanted to eat Maren & Lee; his cry as they drive away is one of profound anguish. Eaters don’t often spend much time around each other, so they miss out on even the slightest sense of kinship for another person. Sully is similar to Jake but exhibits it differently, talking about himself in the third person and engaging in non-consensual physical contact. Not a single Eater knows how to behave like these “normal” people, and each exhibits their own twisted interpretation of “how to be.”
The “bones and all” explanation scene adds a new twist to this subculture being constructed within the film. One Eater talks about the moment you first eat another person entirely: hair, skin, bones, teeth, everything. He explains that your life then becomes defined as everything before that and everything after. This is obviously a metaphor the director is very interested in, and like any good Chekhov’s Gun, it is set up for a later payoff. Guadagnino treasures an atmosphere of mystery, so he isn’t going to explicitly lay out what this event means for the Eaters. We are not of the world; we also aren’t these individuals, which is indescribable. This may mean the soul is consumed as well, and what does that do to an Eater? The one who tells about “bones and all” seems to hold it as a mystical, quasi-religious experience. You are transformed, so who you choose to make your first is extremely important.
Of course, everyone always wants to know how a new film by a critically acclaimed director stacks up to their previous work. Of the three Guadagnino films and one television mini-series I’ve seen, Suspiria is still my favorite of all the work I’ve seen. Then it’s We Are Who We Are, Bones and All, and Call Me By Your Name. But that order could change tomorrow if I suddenly start thinking harder about these pieces. Just because Bones and All isn’t Guadagnino’s best does not mean I think it is bad. Ariana succinctly put it that something was missing the morning after we watched it. I agreed. Suspiria had its main story and a subplot involving Dr. Josef Klemperer, which wove itself back into the main arc. There were also critical historical events happening in the background that added layers to the picture. In Bones and All, we have Maren’s unique story and who she meets. There isn’t another element moving toward her story, and the world feels small. Nevertheless, this is still a magnificent film from one of the best directors working today. It’s an emotional experience with many things that simply can’t be expressed in words. You just have to see them and feel them.