Zombies had a good run. Vampires had their day in the sun. Now, it seems to be cannibals' turn for their bite at the apple.
Luca Guadagnino's “Bones and All” gives them that, and more, in casting Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet as a pair of young cannibals in a 1980s-set road movie that's more tenderly lyrical than most conventional romances. You know, the ones without all the flesh eating.
Guadagnino, the Italian director, is one of our most lushly sensual filmmakers. He makes feasts as much as he makes films. So it's both a hearty recommendation and a warning to say that he brings as much passion and zeal to the lives of the cannibals of “Bones and All” as he did to the ravenous eroticism of “I Am Love” and the lustful awakenings of “Call Me By Your Name.” If you've seen what Guadagnino can do with a peach, it should no doubt concern you what he might manage with a forearm.
But while there is certainly gore in “Bones and All,” there is also beguiling poetry. Guadagnino's darkly dreamy film, which opens in select theaters Friday, has some of the spirit of iconic love-on-the-run films like Arthur Penn's “Bonnie and Clyde," Terrence Malick's “Badlands” and Nicholas Ray's “They Live By Night” — movies that as open-road odysseys double as portraits of America. Like the couples of those films, Maren (Russell) and Lee (Chalamet), as cannibals, are technically law-breakers. But their relationship to society is different. They aren't fighting it. They aren't outsiders by choice.
And though “Bones and All," adapted by Guadagnino and David Kajganich from Camilla DeAngelis’ novel, is about their relationship, it's more striking as Maren's coming of age. Particularly in its vivid, unforgettable early scenes, “Bones and All” digs into her dawning awareness of her cravings — who she is, how she got this way, what it will cost her to be herself. There are, no doubt, powerful metaphors here of growing up queer. But the film isn't a neatly drawn parable. In Maren's self-discovery there's something elemental about alienation and self-acceptance — and how devouring another might save you from devouring yourself.
“Bones and All” can be both brutal and beautiful. You have the sense of seeing a movie that in shape and style reminds you of countless others. But, well, cannibalism just has a way of throwing things off balance. The result is something that feels both archetypal and otherworldly. When, in the opening scenes, Maren sneaks out of bed to visit friends having a sleepover, it's an extremely familiar set-up — right up until Maren's languorous kiss of another girl's finger turns into a crunching bite.
Chaos ensues, Maren flees and when she gets home, her father's rapid response makes it clear this isn't their first time rushing to uproot. Her father, Frank, is played by André Holland, an actor of such soulful presence I remain befuddled why he's not in everything. They go from Virginia to Maryland, where, one morning, Maren wakes up to find him gone. On the table are an envelope with some cash, her birth certificate, and a tape recording of Frank recounting her first eating (a babysitter). Maren is 18. She's never known her mother. And the sense of abandonment is piercing. Seeking her mother, she buys a bus ticket and heads to Ohio.
Power lines and nuclear power plants loom in the frame early in “Bones and All.” On television and the radio, we get snippets of Rudy Giuliani and Ronald Reagan. These are reminders, I think, of power dynamics in the 1980s for all those who lived outside a narrow, heterosexual spectrum.
On a stopover at night, Maren learns there are others like her. A mysterious man (Mark Rylance) beneath a streetlight introduces himself as Sully, and explains he could smell her blocks away. “You can smell lots of things if you know how,” Sully says. Rylance, with a drawl, a feather in his hat and gothic panache, plays one of the creepier movie characters of recent years. Leading her back to a nearby house, he explains the ways of being an Eater. “Whatever you and I got, it's gotta be fed," he says. Soon, he's bent over a body in his underwear, with blood smeared across his face.
In an Indiana grocery store, Maren encounters Lee. Chalamet, reuniting with Guadagnino, is again in fine form. Sporting a mullet, a fedora and an unbuttoned shirt, his charismatic cannibal seems to be channeling James Dean. He certainly catches Maren's eye, who eagerly joins him in a stolen pick-up truck. Drawing closer to Lee has an added layer of danger. Will he kiss her or swallow her?
His fraught family history ropes in other struggles of young adulthood. “Bones and All” can ramble a little, but Lee and Maren's companionship together is as sweet as it is inevitably tragic. In a cruel world full of fearsome characters more rapacious than they are — Michael Stulhbarg and David Gordon Green play a pair of particularly ghoulish hicks — they try to forge a love. The movie, overwhelmingly, is in the eyes of Maren. It's a brilliant breakthrough for Russell, who made a startling impression in 2019's “Waves.” Her Maren is such a sensitive, curious creature — hungry less for flesh than for affection, acceptance and a home.
Stulhbarg, you might remember, had a pivotal role as the father in “Call Me By Your Name." His role here couldn't be any more different. But his words from that earlier film speak to much of “Bones and All." Both films wrestle with what we inherit from our parents and what we sacrifice for the sake of conformity. “Our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once," he said in “Call Me By Your Name.” “Bones and All,” too, yearns for a free, full-body existence.
“Bones and All,” an MGM release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for strong, bloody and disturbing violent content, language throughout, some sexual content and brief graphic nudity. Running time: 121 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.