It’s a brokenhearted America that the human-like creatures of Luca Guadagnino’s astonishing Bones and All wander through. Abbreviated to faded postal codes stamped across the screen, the road trip that our young lovers Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothee Chalamet) take meandering across this country’s middle never feels like it goes much of anywhere—they move in lopsided circles, infinity signs, and every town has the same rusty patch of parking lot and cornfield feel to it, as if tetanus awaits any bare foot to barrel along. Similarly, every person just looks plain dirty, even the ones not actively slurping up blood (we’ll get to that)—the thought of scraping what’s under these folks’ fingernails is enough to make one go in search of a sea of penicillin and a warm wet cloth.
Guadagnino has always made textural, sensational (as in “of the senses”) movies—ones you can feel on the tips of your fingers. But it’s not the silk of Tilda Swinton’s fabrics or the hairs in Ralph Fiennes’ beard this time around—the feels of Bones and All are grungy stuff, far more reminiscent of the work of Andrea Arnold (most especially American Honey) than anything he’s done previously. This is poverty, and squalor, and a coarse sadness. To put it more bluntly this feels like the movie of a man who’s just recently ended a long-term relationship, which is a truth that Guadagnino has spoken about in interviews—turns out that Bones and All is Luca Guadagnino’s break-up movie. And for all of the “romance” you’ll see trumpeted in the film’s trailers this is a movie far more steeped in depression, in desperation, than in any big swells of heart-strings. I walked out of it with the heaviest of hearts, yet deeply moved.
Based on Camille DeAngelis’ 2015 book and adapted by Suspiria screenwriter David Kajganich, Bones and All belongs heart and soul (and gristle) to Taylor Russell, who’s channeling much of that magnificently forthright sense of self and presence that she’s previously put to such good use in films like Waves and the Escape Room franchise (yes, seriously, we love the Escape Room movies here).
We meet Maren long before any swaggerin’ Chalamets pop up—indeed I think we must be a good thirty to forty minutes into the film before Timmy finally saunters past? And it’s time richly and well spent, as we watch Maren’s fraught relationship with her father (AndrÃ© Holland) exhaust itself, sputtering to the kind of sad inevitability that anyone who’s ever been not what their parents expected them to be can see coming like forecasted storms already blinking on the horizon.
We watch as the father-daughter two-some move through anonymous trailer parks in anonymous small towns, barely getting the time to hang a nail in the wall before Maren’s strange, uhh, let’s say appetites, require even newer anonymity again, and again. (We’ve seen lots of scary teenage girl sleepovers in horror movies but never one quite like what Bones and All has in store.) Anyway soon enough Maren’s on her own, an eighteen-year-old scraping up what she can to try and find out more about where she came from—all she’s got is a birth certificate and her long AWOL mother’s name scribbled upon it, but it’s a start. And true starts are hard to come by here.
And then the boys start sniffing around. Literally. If you like me thought it odd when Luca Guadagnino named Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan’s recent moderately-received sequel to The Shining, to be one of his favorite films then you’ll find it much less strange after watching this movie. Because the world that Maren finds herself maneuvering through feels deeply of one with the soul-devourers led there by “Rose the Hat” (side holla to Rebecca Ferguson, the best thing about that flick). It turns out that Maren’s appetites aren’t only her singular own, and there are other like her out there—heck there’s an entire hidden community of Eaters (as one character in the film calls them) who keep mostly to themselves, but who can nevertheless smell each other from miles apart.
The first one to find Maren calls himself Sully, and he’s a pony-tailed wackadoo with a literal feather in his cap who also happens to be played by Oscar-winner and living stage legend Mark Rylance, and whose performance is truly something, a lot of something, to behold. Speaking of himself in the third-person like a toddler-voiced Gollum, Sully’s outward harmless affect is instead a parade’s worth of red flags, as if there’s a clown mask sitting an uncanny inch over an alligator snout. Not long after we’ll meet a similar-type played by Call Me By Your Name’s World Greatest Dad Michael Stuhlbarg, and the ten touches too enthusiastic in their lifestyle choices that these characters share cements one of the film’s main themes—Bones and All is a movie deeply steeped in self-hatred and doubt, and to witness anyone who actually embraces their heart’s desires is stared at by the movie with genuine disgust.
As a queer metaphor—and this is a film from a gay writer and a gay director that is set in the heart of the 1980s and has to do with blood, after all—this is obviously fairly fraught and treacherous territory! And bless Bones and All for having the tenacity to go for it. Like a two-hour treatise on how, Glee be damned, we Othered folks are also once in awhile allowed to look around and be disgusted with humanity and with our own people; how shit don’t add up from any angle in this place we don’t fit in and things don’t get better and futility’s the feast of the day, Bones and All is rolling around in the muck of uncertainty, and deep. The opposite side of the spectrum is banal gibberish like the recent slasher flick They/Them, which also had a younger queer generation confronting the absolute fucked-up-ed-ness of the older one but which came to all the wrong conclusions about that; Bones and All is staring at the world and is damn depressed by what it sees.
So what of its romance, when the dye-jobbed beanpole called Lee does sweep in and give Marin some company to spin those crop circles alongside? I personally don’t think it’s so hot! But with purpose. We learn from another party that Lee’s an addict of some sort, even outside of the food addiction that brings him and Marin together. This is not a thing that Marin ever knows. The only sexual intimacy we see in the film is between Lee and a male victim he scouts at a carnival; stories of his dark past have to be dragged from him, and he continues preferring such things untold even once love’s been declared. Like the appetites the two find no joy from in their feeding, their romance never feels anything other than doomed from the start. And a desperate patch where they play-act as normal people is whisper-thin, over before it’s really even begun. And I have to add that there is a cut to trees outside a window during a feeding frenzy that’s such a dark punchline when placed against the infamous “pan out the window” during Call Me By Your Name’s sex scene that, as funny as it is when you notice it, only seems to underline this movie’s deeply anti-romantic notions. Love’s a bloodbath, nobody survives.
These are the unhappy feeders of Near Dark, the exhausted ghouls of The Hunger, running from one indistinguishable field and frenzy to another in an aimless bid to avoid their approximation of the sun. Only no cure’s coming for anyone in Bones and All—unlike Adrian Pasdar’s character in Bigelow’s masterpiece there’s nobody waiting at home to save Marin, just like so many queer runaways. Anyone who might have cared has left. Home doesn’t exist. Not unless you lock yourself up, mutilate yourself, go mad with despair staring at walls forever, denying who you are. Happy endings are for song lyrics played over anything but, and Bones and All is profoundly aware of the artifice required in holding onto anything in this slippery, gunky world. Oh, what an ache it feeds, only to ache on even more.