Bones and All

dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2022

From left to right: Timothée Chalamet as Lee and Taylor Russell as Maren sitting in a vast field under a bright, blue sky.
Image credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Harsh scares are not easily meshed with the softer tensions of a love story. I had spent two or so hours unsettled — but drawn in — by the narrative of bloodthirsty teens on the run in 80s America. [Insert one-liner involving Fine Young Cannibals here.] Director Luca Guadagnino rarely misses a beat to tug at heartstrings. But, as a movie about flesh ‘eaters’, I had expected the atmosphere of Bones and All to align with his 2018 reimagining of Suspiria over Call Me By Your Name — despite the Timothée Chalamet appearance. In the Venn diagram of Guadagnino screenplays, Bones and All feels like an odd-couple marriage of his previous two hits.

Maren (Taylor Russell) lives in Maryland with her father. A school friend invites her to a sleepover but her dad won’t allow it. Maren sneaks out after dark. The girls lie under a coffee table and paint nails; the camera looks through glass but the pane creates separation. Maren whispers with another girl and between them is a closeness. It seems like a kiss might happen : it doesn’t.

A blood-soaked Maren runs home to her father who gives her three minutes to pack up her life. Stealth indicates that this is routine. In another home between homes, Maren wakes up to find a birth certificate, cash, cassette and her father gone. The tape is his goodbye note: ‘First time was when you were three…’ — she shuts off the player. Maren takes the Greyhound to seek out her estranged mother. She runs into drifter Lee (Chalamet) in a supermarket isle whilst shoplifting. It’s a meet-cute in dark times. They eat pancakes in a diner and listen to Kiss records. Lee shares Maren’s cannibalistic habit; they hit the road in search of identity and find home in each other.

In the manner of a Wim Wenders drifter narrative, Bones and All is a gentler tale of first loves and a grander ode to the American landscape. And, in the convention of filmic Americana, the picture is evenly tempered between beauty and violence. Indeed, Maren is a young woman in dangerous circumstances. She meets other eaters portrayed by Mark Rylance and Michael Stuhlbarg. Stuhlbarg gives a chilling sermon in Bones that rivals his lines of fatherly advice in CMBYN. Rylance’s Sully, a weary loner, treads the line between creepy and pitiful. He maintains a rope of hair as a token whose braid lengthens with each kill. It is a disturbing practice that, like the great American novel, intertwines broader historical strands with finer, personal ones. Clinging onto Maren, he nurses a grudge when she takes off without him.

As with the American desperados of Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Bones and All is a sleepy road trip with criminality lurking in the backseat. Characters are fleeing from small-town banalities, of course, but troubling impulses gnaw at calmer exteriors. Incidents (killings) happen along the way — the beast needs to be fed. The fallout of one gruesome kill leaves Maren wrestling with her innermost nature. Even so, sins are born out of uncontrollable urges rather than violent motivations. In an attempt at a normal life, heinous acts are shelved and the couple move onto the next state.

At their journey’s peak Marin and Lee decide to go west and learn how to be people. They get jobs, go to the movies and make out in the twilight of their modest apartment. Played against the beats of everyday life, the Reznor and Ross soundtrack transmutes mundanity into meaning. Sparse guitar leaves spaces where emotions may enter and breathe. Normality reigns for a time until it can no longer. Biting at their heels is unfinished business.

Bones manoeuvres between a love story and a horror in the manner of the American gothic, undermining preconceptions of identifiable characters in the movies. There is a cognitive dissonance in empathising with those who cause pain; here we sit with the discomfort of experiencing terror and grief simultaneously. ‘Tears for fears’ is a tricky concept to pull off. Bones and All combines tensions of horror and romance without sacrificing the effects of either one.