The heart wants what the heart wants.
But for Maren (Taylor Russell) and her lover Lee (Timothée Chalamet), the doomed young drifters at the center of Luca Guadagnino’s striking new romantic horror, acting upon their deepest desires is as dangerous as it is irresistible.
That’s because Maren and Lee are “eaters” united in a compulsion to devour human flesh that they’ve struggled to control all their lives.
Set across swaths of the American Midwest in the late 1980s, Bones and All (in theaters Nov. 23) treats their hunger as a secret nature, something innate but also ritualistic, classical. This raw, unbridled need for self-knowledge leads them to society’s margins, to one another, and eventually to a consummation both devastating and divine.
Before meeting Lee, Maren lives with her father (André Holland) in Virginia, though the two never stay in one place too long. Shy and socially awkward, she’s thrilled when a classmate invites her to a group sleepover (her father locks her in at night, but Maren sneaks out). As everyone paints their nails, Maren’s overcome. As if dreaming, she bites down on a girl’s finger, to the bone.
Fleeing home in a bloodied stupor, she and her father hit the road. Then, on her 18th birthday, Maren discovers that he’s abandoned her, leaving only crumpled dollar bills and a cassette tape. Playing it, Maren learns she was once a newborn sinking freshly formed teeth into the faces of teenage babysitters, and that her affliction was perhaps inherited.
Determined to track down her long-absent mother and learn how she came to be this way, Maren buys a Greyhound bus ticket and heads across the country, discovering in uncanny, nocturnal sequences reminiscent of both Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys that she’s far from alone in her appetites. An eccentric in a fisherman’s vest and a feathered hat, eater Sully (Mark Rylance) claims to have smelled her from a quarter mile away. He makes a grisly carnivale of the scene where Maren discovers the hideous truth of his scavenging rituals, complete with a rope Sully keeps braiding from his victims’ hair.
Fleeing east, she encounters gorgeous Lee (Chalamet) in a supermarket. His sculpted cheekbones, dyed-red curls, and warped chivalry excite Maren, and they strike out together in a blue pick-up truck.
“I don’t want to hurt anybody,” Maren insists to Lee early on, meaning it. “Famous last words,” he answers her, not unkindly.
As love blossoms along the open road, their relationship evokes the Bonnie and Clyde-esque abstractions of Badlands, in its innocent deadliness. Their wanderings through a rotting skeleton of ‘80s Americana — a grim expanse of checkered diners, slaughterhouses, and boarded-up hovels, shot ominously by talented cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan — eventually lead the outcasts far enough past society’s margins to seize moments of real freedom against rolling hills and soft-rippling lakes.
Heightening the film’s evocative atmosphere is its melancholic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, though the toothy progression of emo needle drops (Duran Duran, Joy Division, New Order) leaves more of an impression.
Guadagnino’s dolce-vita visions of the Italian countryside in his loose-limbed “Desire” trilogy (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, and Call Me By Your Name) reveled in sun-drenched scenery, even as they indulged in a nostalgic longing for ancient statues and forbidden fruit, cultural symbols of eros his camera’s ravenous gaze made fiercely alive.
The filmmaker’s brooding take on the American Midwest lacks the oppressive Gothic density of his Suspiria. But just as swimming pools and island paradises served as erogenous zones in his earlier films, Guadagnino draws from open plains and their bloodied skies a sense of overpowering nature that clarifies the bond between Maren and Lee by hopelessly romanticizing it. The ghost towns they visit are all fading and overgrown, condemned by the greater country and returning somewhere ancient. A scene where the two look out over a Nevada valley canonizes their love as great art, echoing the gallery of elemental landscape paintings that opens the film.
A letter at one point written and read aloud by Maren’s mother declares “the world of love wants no monsters in it.” But like all the declarations made by parents in this film, that sentiment registers as a moral failure, an unjust projection of pain and regret outlining the limits of familial love.
“Do you know how different this could’ve been if I had one person on my side?” Maren rages to Lee, filled up with a loneliness and grief he recognizes too intimately to indulge. “How dare you make this harder,” Lee says, though he laments all the gore and horror they’ve left behind as well.
As Maren and Lee roam this country’s backroads, they struggle to contain their nature. This leads them to dark tests in cornfields and remote campgrounds where they encounter the types of “eaters” they might become. Michael Stuhlbarg, sickening in blood-stained Texas Chainsaw overalls, turns up for one scene to recount that most sublime of cannibal experiences: to fully consume another person, “bones and all.”
Chalamet’s lanky frame, soulful eyes, and delicately carved features have long distinguished him as a performer; in this reunion with the Call Me By Your Name director who clearly idolizes him, the actor is elevated into a grunge matinee idol: James Dean in torn jeans and a blood-stained blouse. A scene in which he bounces around to “Lick It Up” by Kiss feels too perfectly calibrated, Chalamet’s celebrity status overwhelming the character he’s playing, but the actor’s eerie magnetism mirrors Guadagnino’s fascination with mining erotic pleasure from screen archetypes.
Russell is more sensitive in capturing the push-pull between passion and control that eventually compels Maren and Lee to sell the truck and get an apartment together. This ends terribly, but there’s beauty and optimism in the way Maren and Lee feel through their makeshift domesticity. “Let’s be people,” says Maren. “Let’s be them for a while.” Entangling their limbs as if longing to climb into each other’s skin, the stars find a frantic physical chemistry that heightens the film’s warped romantic desperation.
In its leads, Bones and All finds two young lovers bound between annihilation and rebirth, whose carnivorous natures belie an all-consuming lust for life. An earnest romance that’s also a work of gauzy, poetic horror, the film is about transgression and transformation, and ultimately it’s about love as a bloody and selfless act, a form of surrender to one’s fate. Disquieting, tender, and tragic, Bones and All draws Maren and Lee toward a dark destiny, but its stronger scenes simply find the two broken down along rusted backroads, with no end in sight and no home besides the one they’ve forged together.
Bones and All was reviewed out of the New York Film Festival. It opens theatrically Nov. 23.