Bones and All Constructs a Vision of Home
Breathless praise for Bones and All – both the marketing efforts that preceded the film and certain critical plaudits emerging in its wake – describe the latest effort from Luca Guadagnino as a cannibal romance. And in the literal sense, those two words are accurate. But they don’t describe the beating heart at the center of the movie. Bones and All isn’t just a cannibal romance; it’s a winding look at the various paths we take when the world tells us we aren’t one of them.
“in a world that isn’t ours // in a place we shouldn’t be // for a minute // just a minute // we made it feel like home”
So goes the original song produced and recorded by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for Bones and All. “(You Made It Feel Like) Home” is a lyrically sparse song, and these words double as a sort of skeleton key for the film itself. Bones and All is about making that home however we can.
The film opens as high schooler and perpetual nomad Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) is shuttled from her temporary home by her father, Frank (André Holland), in the middle of the night. Maren has just lovingly crunched her incisors into a sleepover mate’s forefinger; the lack of words exchanged in the aftermath between the budding cannibal and Frank suggest he’s aware of this fixation, and that this isn’t the first quick exit they’ve been forced into. But Maren soon reaches her 18th birthday, and Frank leaves her with a birth certificate, a few hundred bucks, and a tape recorder full of his melancholic recollections.
Maren seeks out her mother – a mysterious figure who she assumes may carry the gene for her unique cravings. And thus, with an eye toward her past, Maren steps into a very inhospitable future. Guadagnino and cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan evince the harsh beauty of Regan’s 1980s America, reflecting the growing economic divide in the crumbling small towns and the expansive, unforgiving vistas that stretch between them. This America does not need Maren. This America does not want Maren. Guadagnino displays the various locations throughout as large-font watermarks – indicative of the faded but omnipresent role that location plays in his film.
But she’s not alone in her social isolation. After learning of other “eaters,” Maren bounces across the Midwest and stumbles into what Charles Dickens might have framed as the Ghosts of Cannibal Future. There’s Sully (Mark Rylance), the aged cannibal with a code – a quivering, aggrieved vision of a future in which Maren retreats into the lonely bubble that the world has put her in. Then there’s Jake (a briefly transformative Michael Stuhlbarg), the predatory eater who offers a cursory glimpse into the life of an outsider who embraces his otherness and imposes his revenge indiscriminately.
And, finally, there’s Lee (Timothée Chalamet). Chalamet finds his way into Lee awkwardly, full of limbs and urges he isn’t quite comfortable with – sound familiar? – but there’s a sharp edge to the performance, something both otherworldly and packed with a latent hostility. Maren and Lee pair up in their familial pursuits – Maren chasing her mother while the ghost of Lee’s father chases him – but the film still belongs to Russell. She floats through interactions with an uncertain confidence. She doesn’t know who she is, but her hackles go up every time she veers down a path toward something she isn’t. Maren is half-blindly stumbling her way toward herself across a tundra littered with broken lives – one of whom belongs to Lee. And in the midst of it all, Maren and Lee find a home within each other. That home is strung throughout by Reznor and Ross; the score is the emotional backbone of this film, culminating in a final song - written and recorded by the Nine Inch Nails pairing – as beautiful as any moment put to film this year.
Bones and All wears its influences on its sleeve, but it resists the common urge to be subsumed by them, to toss a wink at the audience and earn a knowing nod from those in the know. Instead, it tosses them into a blender – the recklessness of those without roots in American Honey; the way lovers-on-the-run becomes the truest version of American Manifest Destiny in Badlands; and the primeval tribalism that infects a clan of outsiders in Near Dark – adds a touch of Guadagnino’s visceral romanticism, and pours out something wholly new. Some critics have claimed it’s too arthouse to be true body horror or too gruesome to register as a meaningful love story. It’s not trying to be either – and it’s certainly not trying to fall somewhere in between. Bones and All is its own thing.