Producers: Luca Guadagnino, Theresa Park, Marco Morabito, David Kajganich, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, Lorenzo Mieli, Gabriele Moratti, Peter Spears and Timothée Chalamet Director: Luca Guadagnino Screenplay: David Kajganich Cast: Taylor Russell, Timothée Chalamet, Mark Rylance, Michael Stuhlbarg, André Holland, Chloë Sevigny, David Gordon Green, Jessica Harper, Jake Horowitz, David Gordon Green, Burgess Byrd, Anna Cobb and Kendle Coffey Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists
Maybe cannibals can’t compete numerically with vampires in movies, but there have been plenty of them over the years—among the best-known Hannibal Lecter and Leatherface (or, to note a personal favorite, the dad played by Randy Quaid in Bob Balaban’s criminally underappreciated 1989 “Parents”). Just a few months ago Mimi Cave’s “Fresh” found horror humor in cannibalism’s moneymaking potential. But the subject has rarely been the stuff of woozy romanticism, as it is in Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All,” which to a certain extent does for cannibals what the “Twilight” series did for vampires. But it eschew that franchise’s adolescent sappiness in favor of something grimmer.
Based on a 2015 YA novel by Camille DeAngelis set in the 1980s, it opens with a situation not unlike the start of Tomas Alfredson’s child-vampire film “Let the Right One In” and Matt Reeves’s English-language remake “Let Me In”: teen Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) lives in Virginia with her father Frank (André Holland), who carefully locks her into her bedroom each night. But she sneaks out for a sleepover with some classmates, during which she nonchalantly bites off a girl’s finger. Racing back to her father, she’s ordered to pack up quickly before the police arrive, and soon the two have resettled in Maryland.
But here the story diverges from Alfredson’s. Instead of continuing to protect Maren, Frank abandons her, leaving behind a bit of cash and an audio tape explaining that he can no longer deal with her craving for human flesh, which she first exhibited when she was three and killed and consumed a babysitter. They’ve been on the run ever since. Frank has also left her birth certificate, which indicates that she was born in a small Minnesota town and that the name of her mother, who disappeared when she was an infant, was Janelle Kerns.
Alone for the first time, Maren hops a bus in hopes of eventually tracking down her mother, but winds up stranded in Ohio, where she’s recognized as a fellow “eater” by Sully (Mark Rylance), a soft-spoken, strangely accommodating older man who takes her under his wing, instructing her that her need for sustenance will only increase. Together they invade a house where an elderly woman lies dying, and after she breathes her last greedily devour the corpse together. But disconcerted by Sully’s advances, and by eccentricities like his habit of crafting a long rope of from the hair of his victims, she takes off on her own.
In Indiana she encounters another eater, a young man named Lee (Timothée Chalamet), and accepts his invitation to travel to his hometown in Kentucky, where they meet his younger sister Kayla (Anna Cobb), a “normal” person who’s unaware of her brother’s appetites. They decide to drive to Minnesota to search for Janelle, and while passing through Missouri encounter Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg), a redneck eater who reveals that his companion Brad (David Gordon Green) is not actually an eater himself but indulges in cannibalism by choice. This disgusts Maren and she and Lee depart hastily, but in Iowa Lee has an erotic encounter with a carnival worker (Jake Horowitz) that ends in the man’s death—and a revelation about the dead man’s life that reinforces how morally dark an eater’s choices necessarily are.
By now “Bones and All”—the title refers to the consumption of an entire body, down to the last morsel (a rare occurrence)—has turned into a picaresque, a road movie punctuated by horrendous moments that, in terms of blood and gore, go far beyond the killings of a film like “Badlands,” in which sparks of romance have begun to sprout between two unusual young people, both sympathetic and dangerous. They continue to Minnesota looking for Maren’s mother—and they succeed by contacting her adoptive mother Barbara (Jessica Harper) and, using the information she provides, locating Janelle (Chloë Sevigny), a long-term resident of a mental facility. But Janelle hardly proves welcoming, and in the process Sully reappears, obsessed with enticing Maren to join him. When she and Lee, now a couple, attempt to create as normal a life for themselves as they can, Sully intervenes in their dream with tragic results, compelling them to express their desire to be together in a decidedly ironic way. Like “Romeo and Juliet,” this is not a tale of young lovers that ends blissfully.
The focus of the story is clearly Maren, and Russell responds with a soulful performance that expresses the girl’s desperate attempts to come to terms with the fact of who, and what, she is. As the young man who becomes her chief support, Chalamet equals her as a sympathetic figure, especially when he reveals the sad facts of his own past. (Guadagnino, who utilized the actor’s good looks to great effect in “Call Me By Your Name,” doubles down here, sometimes pausing for what might pass for a glossy magazine still of his profile—an understandable choice, perhaps, but also artistically an unfortunate one.)
Guadagnino moreover, surrounds his two stars with supporting performers he encourages to chew the scenery, and even the most distinguished of them respond enthusiastically to the prompt. Rylance, ordinarily so restrained, smolders as Sully, a quiet figure but one seething with volcanic lust, and toward the close he turns positively manic. It’s the sort of performance that looks like underplaying but is really overplaying. Stuhlbarg, another returnee who was so thoughtfully nuanced in “Name,” smacks his lips with abandon in his brief turn, and Green follows his lead. And as Maren’s troubled mother Sevigny is positively ferocious. Others in the cast are not quite so over-the-top, but it’s a matter of degree. Of course in what’s basically a horror film, underplaying is rarely what’s wanted. But here it is, and while the stars provide it, the others generally don’t. Rather they indulge in the sort of turns that marred the director’s misguided remake of “Suspiria.”
Some of the images in the film are striking (and not just by reason of the sanguinary profusion), but production designer Elliot Hostetter, costumer Giulia Piersanti and cinematographer Arseni Khatchaturan opt overall for a gritty, rather ragged look, and editor Marco Costa is unafraid to let scenes ramble and transitions feel clumsy; some of the montages are positively messy in every sense. A spare score, heavy on guitars, adds to the ambience of rustic simplicity.
Guadagnino’s attempt to juggle disparate tones and tropes is ambitious and he secures surprisingly affecting turns from his young leads, but in the end the film’s mixture of horror and romance doesn’t quite cohere.