It’s always fun and games until someone bites another person’s finger off.
To be fair, Maren — the young hero of Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, one half of its red-hot killer couple, our tour guide of ’80s Rust-Belt America and the role that officially confirms actor Taylor Russell as a best-of-generation contender — has sampled human flesh before. Her tastes first manifested themselves when she was three years old, we’re told, and her father (Andre Holland) has been shepherding Maren around from city to city, state to state ever since. Things had been stable in Virginia for a good long while, but then she sneaks out one night to go to a sleepover with some fellow high school students, and Duran Duran is playing on the stereo, and there’s an insane amount of sexual tension happening between Maren and the festivities’ host. I mean, the girl’s finger was right there by her mouth. Old habits die hard….
It’s soon after father and daughter flee to Maryland that this fine young cannibal finds herself on her own, left with nothing but a pile of cash, a cassette-tape confessional from Dad and a birth certificate. As with Camille DeAngelis’ young-adult novel of the same name, we ride shotgun with Maren for a bit as she journeys across a landscape of scorched Reagan-era earth. Much to her surprise, she’s not the only one cursed with this affliction; there’s a loose, scattered community of folks known as “eaters,” who exist on the fringes of society and indulge on the sly. Maren’s early encounters with possible mentors and peers in all matters of taboo cuisine run the gamut from dodgy to creepy, and include a hippiesh fellow traveler named Sully who teaches her a few life hacks in terms of feasting. (He’s played by Mark Rylance, officially cornering the market on Earth-Mother predators here and adopting a lisping accent way too reminiscent of this guy for comfort.)
So Maren drifts through the Midwest, dried blood stains on her fingers and her eyes set on the prize of information regarding her long M.I.A. mother. Then one day, across a crowded grocery mart on the wrong side of town, she spots Lee (Timothee Chalamet). Or rather, she “smells” him, as eaters have a way of literally sniffing each other out. This whippet-thin dirtbag dreamboat stands up to a belligerent jerk harassing customers and clearly itching for a brawl. Lee invites him outside to have a go. And even before Maren catches him exiting an abandoned building, his mouth covered in crimson, she knows she has found a kindred spirit. Over pancakes the next morning — regular pancakes, not customized Homo sapien ones — Lee invites her to come along for the ride. True love, the open road and future meals await.
They’re young and restless, horny and hungry, but Y.A. source material or not, Bones and All isn’t likely to move beaucoup bedroom-wall posters of these two locked in a swooning, plasma-splattered embrace. And while the thought of Chalamet’s legion of teen fans flocking to what looks like Twilight for carnivores on the surface, only to experience some genuinely unnerving horror-movie imagery, is enough to make you giddy, Guadagnino’s goal isn’t trying to spring a trap. Not even a thirst-related one, necessarily.
Rather, the Call Me By Your Name filmmaker is out to set a mood, and conjure up something that plays off both our national mythology of being on the move and the stagnancy of the era. Maren and Lee aren’t Edward and Bella; they’re Bowie and Keechie from They Live By Night, Bart and Annie from Gun Crazy, Kit and Holly from Badlands, Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers. They’re an outlaw couple who connected over being outcasts, a signature obsession of the Italian writer-director no matter what genre he’s working in. Plus, for every bit of Norman Rockwell Americana the movie throws in — say, a kiss on a Ferris wheel — it doubles down on what looks like a Robert Frank portfolio of banal roadside digs and small-town squalor. (Guadagnino has namechecked William Eggleston as an influence, and cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan channels the famed photographer’s work as if seen through a patina of grime and rot.) This is a country teetering on an abyss, where love means never having to say you’re sorry — just that you’re not in control of your cravings.
Or at least, there are enough signifiers dotting Bones and All to suggest a critique of an age that laid the foundation for our current empire of dust. Guadagnino has always excelled at being more of a sensual filmmaker rather than a sociopolitical one, and while he’s not outright luxuriating in poverty chic, there is the sense that the rundown homes and residential areas situated perilously close to belching smokestacks are more backgrounds for his psychodrama than anything else. He’s a little more invested the eccentrics roaming the backroads and highways, notably Rylance’s demon in Type O-drenched tighty-whities (who returns with a vengeance), and Michael Stuhlbarg and David Gordon Green (!) as a master-and-apprentice duo. And of course, he’s extremely committed to maximizing this as showcase for his leads. Guadagnino was the first to pick up on Timothee Chalamet’s presence onscreen, and while this Call Me By Your Name reunion may have some odd thematic overlaps adjacent to that earlier project, it’s a natural continuation of their director-actor collaboration. This twentysomething thin white duke can seem sexually magnetic, as when he cruises a carny so the couple can feed, or he can seem recessive and shy, as he does when Lee slowly lets Maren get past his long-calcified protective layers. In either mode, it’s a bravura display of scuzzy, feral charisma.
But this is a really movie that rests on one set of shoulders. This tender, gory trip through the guts of a nation is blessed with one of those magical instances of casting the right actor in the right part, and it’s impossible to think of someone else who could do justice to this young woman the way that Taylor Russell does. There’s such a boldness and a sensitivity to how she lets Maren give in to her tendencies, the way she communicates liberation and shame over satiating herself. The wariness of those early scenes make you feel how lost this soul is, and how grateful she is to be not just seen but accepted by Chalamet’s wandering gourmet. By the time tragedy rears its pockmarked head — you can’t put a spurned suitor on the mantle in Act One without him drooling over “unfinished business” in Act Three — you can clearly clock how Russell has finally given this character a purpose, a spine, a beating heart as well as sharp incisors.
Maren comes into her own before the final flashback fade-out. Russell comes into her own within Bones and All‘s first five minutes, however, and the key pleasure of this warped romance is as much about viewers basking in an artist staking her claim as it is about cannibals finding their ideal dining companion. The title, by the way, refers to a rite of passage where an “eater” chomps down every bit of a victim, right down to the marrow. It suggests an act of full completion, a personal crossing of a Rubicon. By the end of this film, you feel like you’ve watched Russell test her own limits and emerge a stronger performer because of it.