“Its scope and its emotional intensity suggest a payoff to all the heartache and carnage that it never really identifies.”
by Ken Bakely
The specific possibilities of tension between the corporeal and the psychological – always present in Luca Gudagnino’s work, certainly – is particularly direct in his new film, Bones and All; it’s literally a love story between cannibals. By turns, this is a work bold and meditative, a chronicle of a life on the run and fraught with oft-hidden dangers that doesn’t turn out to be as wholly fulfilling as it could have been, but also excels in other ways – from the connections that Gudagnino makes as a filmmaker at a forensic level, often down to the contrasts of shots or individual interactions, to the strengths of the performances from his cast. Taylor Russell stars as Maren, an 18-year-old student who lives with her father, Frank (André Holland), in impromptu settings with frequent moves, lest her cannibalism rise to the surface and require them to make a quick getaway. After one such occurrence, she’s left on her own, with Frank leaving her some money and audio tapes explaining her childhood. Maren resolves to track down her mother, who she never knew, and sets off from Virginia to her birth state of Minnesota. But in the secret community that she’s unwittingly a part of, “eaters” have ways of finding each other, and this manifests here in unexpected meetings with people like Sully (Mark Rylance), an older and rather off-putting man who always seems to be lingering the background; and Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a headstrong boy of about her age, who will become her companion in her travels, as they grow close and forge a tight bond on their journey.
For all that ends up happening, there’s really a simple core to Bones and All. While the story will occasionally rise up to some new development or twist, David Kajganich’s script (based on the novel by Camille deAngelis) is a road movie at heart, and content to simply follow Maren and Lee on their excursion. Other problems notwithstanding, the movie does excel in building an almost unplaceably disquieting atmosphere – a tingling emptiness that extends both to the open road and the grungy localities. The setting matters very deeply. It’s somewhere in Reagan’s second term, they’re somewhere in these run-down stretches of Americana, amid times and places of decay and disarray and abandonment, where something is crying out to fill these hollowed-out spaces. In the absence of something more universal, it’s this secret group of people who live all but off the grid, with their dangerous and bloody proclivities always hanging over their every interaction with each other. It’s a knotty set of ideas that, in the film’s main pairing, have to instead be replaced with sincere connection. Guadagnino’s two lead actors excel here, but for all the brooding mystery that Chalamet brings to Lee, you can’t shake the intense and wrenching dynamics of Russell’s commanding performance. She balances the tender, violent, introspective, and headstrong impulses that both the story and Maren, specifically, are confronted with, and she does so in a way that is always recognizably human.
When the movie focuses on who these characters are and how they interact, it’s very strong and capable, even in the film’s final act, which ratchets up tensions from subtext to text and becomes something seemingly different from what came before. There’s almost an urge to be surprised by the ending, but it does turn out to encapsulate what the movie is going for in quite a self-contained way, a sign of Guadagnino’s efforts in bringing mood and tone together. Yet whether this is as potently realized through the rest of the story’s plotting can be a different question altogether. To whatever extent such a thing is explicable, there’s vanishingly little visceral surprise or astonishment to this movie about teenage cannibals. Bones and All is engaging enough while you’re watching it – considering its often-spectacularly gory digressions, it almost has to be – but after a point, it takes on the faint sensation of a movie that’s lumbering to find some deeper meaning that’s never really there. They are traveling and things will happen. Things have happened. They have happened often with great effort and accomplishment, and there is no question that the movie itself exudes a decently well-earned confidence in an ability to pull it all off in the moment, but there’s a searching feeling that sneaks in and it never really addresses, beyond the vaguest sketches of community or growth. It may all be internally consistent, for whatever that’s worth, but what does it amount to? Its scope and its emotional intensity suggest a payoff to all the heartache and carnage that it never really identifies.