Anton Chekhov once wrote to a colleague that “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” So when Michael Stuhlbarg describes to a pair of young cannibal lovers the transcendental experience of consuming someone “bones and all,” he loads carcass-shaped bullets into Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic gun.
The lovers comprise Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet), both “eaters,” with a hunger for human flesh passed down their respective family’s bloodlines. We are first introduced to Maren as a seemingly shy wallflower in a run-down high school. Instantly there is a slight eeriness to its hallways with blood-red lockers and walls lined with flat watercolors of American landscapes that the film will soon call its home.
Maren is invited to a friendly classmate’s house to sleep over but her father (André Holland) won’t allow it, locking her into her room with the windows nailed shut. Teenagers being teenagers, she cannot resist defying his orders and sneaks out for an evening of girlie festivities. The film wears its homo-eroticism on its sleeve throughout, the sexual chemistry between Maren and an unsuspecting teen girl under the table reaching its apex as she shows Maren her manicure. Maren gently places the finger in her mouth, tender for a moment before biting down with all her might, blood splattering down her chin and onto an oversized ’80s sweater.
Her father is furious but not surprised, screaming at her to grab what she can in the next three minutes before bolting before the police can find them. Holland, even with screen time confined to the opening 10 minutes, the occasional dream flashback, and the audio on a cassette tape, is mesmerizing in the role as beleaguered parent, struggling with the limits of his own responsibility. On Maren’s 18th birthday she awakes to find him gone, leaving behind the cassette with an explanation of why he is leaving her and her birth certificate. Maren returns to the cassette again and again, and each time Holland’s words are heart-breaking, filled to the brim with pain and regret.
Birth certificate in hand, and now with a clue as to who might be the mother she never met, Maren sets off across the country to find some answers about who, or what, she is. At her first stop in Maryland she encounters her first fellow “eater” in Sully, played with signature aplomb by Mark Rylance. The two share a meal of a freshly expired elderly woman that evokes Leatherface’s ungodly domesticity in the final act of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” The two “eaters” share heightened senses and a pungent smell of death seems to emanate from the screen. This is the first indication Guadagnino’s carefully curated aesthetic will hit all five senses to create an absolute feast.
Blood pours across gothic mahogany in rooms lined with chintzy floral wallpaper and ’80s tchotchkes, made better still by the film’s stunning sound design. Some scenes bring detached cannibalistic chomping, others have crescendoing winds across American plains. The soundtrack, largely period appropriate and featuring Duran Duran and Kiss, is perfectly utilized throughout. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s track for the film, “(You Made it Feel Like) Home,” punches through, in awful harmony with the haunting tragedy of the film itself.
Having identified Sully’s extremely bad vibes, including an 8-foot rope of human hair (inspiring the film’s funniest moment: “Christ. That’s a choice!”) Maren sets off again only to encounter Lee, another fellow “eater.” The chemistry between the two leads is lovely, but the greatest love story still appears to be between Chalamet and Guadagnino as the director shoots his face so adoringly its hard not to be moved by their bond.
What ensues plays clear tribute to Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” the two traveling across the country through golden-hour vistas, but the film is far more tender toward its leads, shooting everything from a tentative first kiss in a slaughterhouse to a swim in a Kentucky lake with a childlike sense of wonder. Most striking is when our two lovers sit at the edge of a valley in Nebraska, where Chalamet shows off his near-peerless ability to gently weep. There’s nothing unconventional in showing two lonely souls falling in love by having them gaze into each others’ eyes against a sprawling landscape (arguably, Campion did this better in last year’s “The Power of the Dog”) but Guadagino still gifts us with sweeping romance that is impossible to resist.
The film is based on a 2015 YA novel from Camille DeAngelis and, like in the source material, it adheres to some coming-of-age cliches. Breathtaking aesthetic, grisly body horror, and compelling performances aside, the film hits many of the well-worn markers of coming-of-age road trips, including some uncanny parallels with 2002 Britney Spears vehicle “Crossroads.”
Even with that familiarity, its possible to simply get lost in the gorgeous details of “Bones & All.” The costuming particularly builds beyond the typical markers of an ’80s setting. Maren’s distressed floral summer dresses and Betty Page haircut and Lee’s ripped jeans and pearl-buttoned cardigan feel like they are operating in a grimy Reagan-era underclass where everyone has thrown off the shackles of heteronormativity in the chicest possible fashion. Best of all are Stuhlbarg appearing with greasy hair and smeared with dirt, shirtless beneath ill-fitting dungarees. Meanwhile, Rylance is in a feathered trilby and his lapels are covered in shiny badges that are lightly militaristic. It gives him the air of a man being driven mad by the horrors of war — even if this war is with his own unquenchable desire for human flesh.
Unlike in the hard-set structures around vampires, zombies and werewolves, Guadagnino has no real rules in this world beyond what the eaters self impose. Some take joy in the kill and consumption of their fellow man, others prey only on the dying, cruel, or dispossessed. That fluidity brings even higher, and more compelling, moral stakes to the central duo. Their options are broadly limited to eating humans, committing suicide, or locking themselves away; beyond that they are adrift, not knowing what purpose they could serve themselves or one another. This a love story of two people traveling through a world while being told “the world of love wants no monsters in it.”
If this proves a star-making turn for Taylor Russell, the way that “Call Me By Your Name” proved for Chalamet, then it will be well deserved, a testimony to Guadagnino’s casting prowess (one infamous alleged cannibal aside). The film opens itself up successfully to myriad readings, potentially speaking about everything from intergenerational trauma, to queer love, to addiction. But “Bones & All” is fundamentally a beautifully realized and devastating, tragic romance which at multiple moments would have Chekhov himself weeping as the trigger is pulled.
“Bones & All” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. MGM will release it in theaters on Wednesday, November 23.