Bones and All is a savage, swooningly romantic 1980s-set tale of first love and finding one’s place in the world. Observational but mysterious, whilst also political and anti-nostalgic, Luca Guadagnino’s road trip across the States finds equal amounts of horror and beauty at every turn.
They were young. They were in love. They ate people. Based on the 2015 novel by Camille DeAngelis, Bones and All reworks the classic lovers-on-the-run plot and gives it a cannibal twist. The mythology at work here is vampire-like: it is established these people are driven to feed on the flesh of the living. The cannibals can also literally sniff each other out. When Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell), having hit the road in search of her birth mother, meets fellow people-eater Lee (Timothée Chalamet), sparks fly and the pair travel across America searching for a home, for redemption, recognising – through trials and tribulations – they are each other’s salvation.
Set in 1988, as Reaganomics made America evermore unequal and revived the nation’s beleaguered spirit after the bleak decade preceding it, cannibalism makes for a handy metaphor for the American appetite and propensity for greed. Not that Guadagnino is prepared to go whole hog into politics. But it’s there all the same, as a backdrop in the main. It’s present in the discreet but gloomy portrait of rundown country towns who will never in a million years be the beneficiaries of their backbreaking labour; the breadbasket and industrial states where the film is predominantly set are well on their way to outright impoverishment and embittered left behind status.
It is more overtly addressed in an eerie scene featuring Michael Stuhlbarg and filmmaker David Gordon Green as Jake and Brad, cannibals who confess to scoffing down “bones and all”. They describe the immense power it gives them, like it’s a narcotic effect. In other words, in Gordon Green’s sickening character especially so, their gluttony is not only what defines them as individuals: it clearly defines that spectacularly selfish era in modern history. Leave nothing for others, no sharing, satisfying the self alone is paramount. Maren and Lee though are different. They take what they need and no more, and certainly take no pleasure in slaughter. It leaves them feeling afraid, anguished, guilty and disturbed.
Bones and All, like the best horror movies, finds poetry in the frightening, in the transgressive, in the perverse. It mines light from darkness and transforms it before our eyes into something universal, shining and true, no matter how ephemeral. “Love’s the only engine of survival,” the late Leonard Cohen once crooned, and Guadagnino would no doubt agree with such hopeful sentiment. But tragedy beckons as tragedy always does in these narratives. The end is written at the start. Bones and all.
Martyn Conterio | @martynconterio