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Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Richard Roeper

‘Bones and All’: Benign young cannibals enter the ‘Twilight’ zone

Searching for her mother, young Maren (Taylor Russell) takes up with a fellow “Eater” (Timothée Chalamet) in “Bones and All.” (United Artists Releasing)

How about “Twilight,” only this time around the beautiful young people are cannibals instead of vampires?

That’s what we get with the Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s equal parts elegant and grotesque road-trip saga “Bones and All,” which has a “Badlands” meets “Near Dark” vibe and contains a couple of genuinely effective shock moments, but ultimately comes across as a gratuitously violent and at times overwrought Young Adult drama dressed up with art-house accessories. The talented young leads acquit themselves well here, but this is also the kind of movie that provides the forum for not one but two of our finest character actors to deliver performances so hammy you’ll be reaching for the spicy mustard sauce.

With a score by the powerhouse team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and some gorgeously sparse American visuals courtesy of cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan (“Bones and All” was filmed primarily in the greater Cincinnati region, which fills in for a number of states, including Virginia, Maryland, Ohio and Indiana), the story kicks off in the late 1980s, with high school student Maren (Taylor Russell) living with her father, Frank (André Holland), and sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night to join a slumber party in the nicer part of town. Maren is new in town and just beginning to make friends, and the night seems to be going fairly well until ... well, let’s just cut to Maren racing back home, her clothes spattered with blood, and her father saying Not again! as they scramble to collect their things and skip town — something it’s clear they’ve done a number of times over the years, whenever Maren’s taste for human flesh overwhelms her and she can’t control herself.

‘Bones and All’

That’s the deal. Maren isn’t a vampire, she’s a cannibal. She can go days, weeks, months, maybe even a couple of years without feeding on human flesh, but it’s going to happen again. It’s been happening ever since she was a baby and she attacked and killed a babysitter or two.

The metaphors about being isolated in America during an unenlightened time and inherited trauma come fast and heavy throughout “Bones and All,” as Maren’s father abandons her, leaving behind a few crumpled bills and a cassette tape explaining her back story, and Maren sets out to find the mother who abandoned her when she was a child. Along the way, Maren is surprised to learn there are cannibals, aka “Eaters,” spaced out all over the country (and presumably the world), and they can literally sniff each other out from hundreds of yards away, though it appears they travel mostly as loners, keeping to themselves, living on the fringes of society and engaging in the occasional kill and feeding frenzy before disappearing into the shadows.

The first Eater she meets is Mark Rylance’s Sully, a straight-out psychopath who speaks in an exaggerated drawl, has long, stringy hair, wears a hat with a feather and a vest/coat combo festooned with more buttons and “flair” than Jen Aniston’s suspenders in “Office Space.” Rylance is unquestionably a brilliant actor of enormous talent and he’s clearly sinking his teeth (sorry) into the role of demented Sully, who has made a long rope from the hair of his various victims, but Sully is like a B-movie wacko who wandered in from a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” sequel. It’s a bonkers-bad performance.

Later, the terrific Michael Stuhlbarg plays way, WAY against type as a “Deliverance” style backwoods Eater, the kind of role often played by Stephen Root (if we’re going to keep those “Office Space” references coming). It’s Stuhlbarg’s character who speaks in lustful tones of the ultimate cannibal experience, which comes when you consume the entire person “bones and all.” (Imagine the digestive consequences!) If possible, Stuhlbarg’s performance as a creepy hillbilly Eater is even more of a scenery-chewer than Rylance’s work.

In between, Maren meets the polar opposite of those late-middle aged Eaters: the brooding, emo-rebel Lee (Timothée Chalamet, reunited with his “Call Me By Your Name” director here), who poses and preens like a razor-thin James Dean and tries to live by some kind of Eater Code, e.g., he won’t feed on someone who has a family and he tries to stay in touch with his family in Kentucky and take care of his little sister, Kayla (Anna Cobb). Against all bloodthirsty odds, Maren and Lee dream of living a regular life and even give it a go for a while, but we know there will come a time when one or both of them will get really hungry, and takeout just isn’t going to hit the spot. Before “Bones and All” reaches its unsurprising albeit haunting conclusion, we’ve lost our appetite.

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