‘Bones and All’ will break your heart before it eats it

Luca Guadagnino’s cannibal romance bends genre to create something moving and unique

Photo+courtesy+of+Bones+and+All+official+IMDb+page.+

Photo courtesy of “Bones and All” official IMDb page.

By Thomas Machacz, Collegian Staff

There’s something romantic about monstrosity. Cast to the margins of society, monsters must form highly personal, long-lasting bonds with those similar to them in order to survive. Without affection from their own kind, they’ll end up more alone than any normal human could ever be. Classic horror movies like “Frankenstein” and “The Wolf Man” are built around this tragedy. “Bones and All” continues in that tradition, finding a far more gruesome and intimate set of truths within it.

Set in the 1980s, the story follows Maren (Taylor Russell), a lonely high schooler. She is cast out by her father after her urges to cannibalize her peers become a danger to both of them. The film tracks Maren’s journey across the American Midwest to find her mother, meeting fellow cannibals along the way, most notably a fiercely independent boy named Lee (Timothée Chalamet), with whom she strikes up a passionate romance.

“Bones and All” is based on a book of the same name by Camille DeAngelis, and the story’s novelistic roots shine through to the movie. The story is split into small chapters, each one spotlighting a different stage of Maren’s struggle with self-loathing and her need for self-acceptance.

The time she spends with her father, Frank (a heartbreaking André Holland), acts as a prologue. It introduces Maren’s cannibalism as well as her father’s mix of love and fear toward her, which colors the rest of her relationships. Frank leaves Maren a recording of him telling her how he found out, and why he felt he needed to leave her. The tape is revealed in bits throughout the movie, peeling back Maren’s past in a structurally similar way to a novel.

The conceit is undeniably bizarre. The concept of cannibalism is rarely given much sympathy in fiction, but director Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name,” “Suspiria”) presents the phenomenon as an unwanted compulsion, one that drives otherwise regular people toward ugly means of satiation. The approach makes for an intimate viewing experience that feels tender even with several gory horror sequences.

Throughout the movie, different cannibals treat their desire in individualistic ways. The first cannibal Maren meets on her journey is Sully (Mark Rylance), an eccentric old man with some serious demons. Sully introduces Maren to the various rituals he has learned in his many years as an “eater,” as he casually explains. Among his principles is to never eat another eater. Another principle is his growing ability to smell other eaters from great distances. Rylance brings a bizarre magnetism to the role, creating a character that is both wildly upsetting and curiosity evoking. You can see the years of killing and eating wearing on his face, numb to the kind of atrocity necessary for his survival.

Once Sully becomes too strange for her, Maren hits the road again. The next eater she meets is Lee, and a new world is opened up to her. Instead of being an apprentice to an unpredictable veteran eater, she finds a kindred spirit wrestling with the same dilemmas.

Lee remains in some contact with his family, occasionally visiting them for a few days between his feeding trips. Lee’s relationship with his family is foreign to Maren, who has been cut off entirely. Lee’s support allows Maren to refocus on the search for her mother, the results of which only further complicate how she sees herself. Without revealing too much, Maren’s mother is far from what she had expected.

Very rarely are horror movies just about the monster. “Dracula” can be read as an allegory to the temptations of sex beyond the constraints of Christian values. “Frankenstein” is often likened to a story about parenthood and taking responsibility for another person’s life. With elements of familial estrangement and fear of oneself set against of America in the in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, parallels to queer life are present throughout “Bones and All.” Director Luca Guadagnino is probably best known for the 2017 gay romance “Call Me By Your Name,” which deals with queerness in the same era. “Bones and All” offers a much bleaker reading of queer struggle.

Maren comes face-to-face with her true self in adolescence, prompting confusion and fear from her father. She is displaced from her home and forced to fend for herself. Though her cannibalistic tendencies are abjectly disturbing to those around her, she still seeks acceptance of that part of her. That acceptance initially comes from Lee, but she soon finds out that it must also come from inside herself. Any queer person, and indeed any person who feels they’ve been marginalized by society, can relate to that journey.

Taylor Russell’s portrayal of Maren is a totally naturalistic view of youthful curiosity. She brings both sensitivity and rage to the role, true to the complexity of adolescence. There’s a quality to her that makes each line feel like the synthesis of a thousand thoughts. Her romance with Chalamet’s character feels desperate and true.

Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All” is a testament to the power of genre filmmaking. Working within horror, he and his actors create a story that investigates the needs of the body, and even more so, the needs of one’s mind. Amidst gruesome death and destruction, the film manages to feel heartbreakingly human at every turn.

Thomas Machacz can be reached at [email protected]