The urge to equate young love with doom and mortality probably goes far beyond Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet. It’s such a natural narrative pairing: first loves rarely last, and youth certainly doesn’t.
For most people, that burning intensity of young love—the “Everything is new and wonderful, and we’re the first people ever to experience sex” feeling of infatuation and discovery—is likely to fade quickly. And for adults looking back on that era of their lives, the sense of loss and nostalgia can be similar to the emotions of navigating death. But the metaphor has rarely been as startlingly vivid as it is in Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, a gory shocker that comes with many familiar horror movie elements but plays much more like a classic road romance.
It’s an odd film, seemingly designed to confuse both fans of Guadagnino’s previous horror-related feature, 2018’s messy giallo remake Suspiria, and fans of his 2017 sun-baked gay romance Call Me by Your Name. While Bones and All bridges these two films so neatly that it feels calculated, it also begs the question of how much audience crossover there might be between the two films. Horror hounds may be disappointed by how much of the film is low-key relationship drama and coming-of-age story, low on breathless tension-building and jump scares. Romantic drama fans will definitely see more gory eviscerations than they are used to getting in their movies. But for genre-agnostic cinephiles, the sheer courage and uniqueness of the story — an adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’ 2015 YA novel of the same name — will be a big part of the draw.
Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Bones and All reunites Guadagnino and Call Me by Your Name star Timothée Chalamet for a second love story. But it takes a while for Chalamet to come into the picture. Initially, the film centered on Maren (Waves’ Taylor Russell), a high school with a series of secrets. Maren lives alone with her father (André Holland) in a dilapidated, run-down house. A furtive sense of shame hangs over every little detail of their home and their interactions, but it takes a while for the film to discover why that’s true, and what they’re both navigating. And when the discoveries come, they are horrifying and exciting at the same time, in part because the details are so unexpected.
Aside from indulging in massive amounts of blood and some brief, intense violence, Bones and All is the kind of film that is better experienced in the moment than described. Each new revelation about Maren’s past and present is carefully uncovered, in part because she doesn’t really understand her own nature, and besides that the audience has to learn about it. Writer David Kajganich (a writer-producer-developer on the much-loved horror series The Terror) never feels rushed to get to any particular part of the story. He and Guadagnino make enough room for Maren to learn through conversations, first with new acquaintance Sully (Bridge of Spies’ Mark Rylance, disappearing again in an incredible performance), then with new acquaintance Lee (Chalamet), a worldly boy about her age.
Viewers who do not already know the fundamental premise of the film, and want to experience it in the theater, should stop reading here. Early trailer and festival synopses for Bones and All were coy about what makes Maren, Lee, and others different, but public descriptions of the film have widely shared the secret: Bones and All’s wide-eyed central couple are both “Eaters “, effectively driving ghouls to devour human flesh. Their victims do not have to live, but once they have begun consuming human bodies, they must continue, or die. Bones and All more or less follows in the footsteps of films from Bonnie and Clyde to Terrence Malick’s Badlands by putting some pretty people on the wrong side of the law and sending them on the run, but in this case is the question how human they are. And their crimes are not sexy and stylish, like Bonnie and Clyde’s bank robberies or the vampiric murders in The Hunger – Guadagnino makes the rituals of consumption bloody, grotesque and animalistic, an unpleasant matter of survival.
All of this gives him more room to play when it comes to romanticizing Lee and Maren’s connection. There’s a centuries-old tradition of sexualizing monsters and predatory behavior, and Bones and All leans heavily on it while still building the story around the old coming-of-age patterns of protagonists finding themselves ( and find their courage in the process). Maren has a lot to navigate—a family mystery, her first love, her first understanding that there are other Eaters and rules that bind her. But above all, she must figure out who she is in Lee’s shadow, and beyond. He knows much more than she about the world, and Eater life, but she knows more about what she wants, and who she hopes to be, and she must navigate how her desires meet his understanding of the world.
Photo: Yannis Drakoulidis/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures
Like Call Me by Your Name, Bones and All is a sensual film, especially visually – Guadagnino luxuriates in the kind of grand sky-sky-land vistas that made Andrea Arnold’s similarly summer-break-themed American Honey so memorable, and he lights his leads warmly in the day and with skulking fervor at night. But it’s more remarkable for the way he and Kajganich navigate the push and pull between the story’s romantic elements and horror themes. There’s a big metaphor at play here about how parents, families, and friends enable deviant behavior until it feels normal, and how being shielded from the world can make it difficult to enter into it properly. And it plays out in radically different ways at the same time: both through the lens of two young children on a romantic road trip, and as two growing monsters who seduce and kill other people for food.
There is an equally complex sense of attraction and repulsion in Maren and Lee’s relationship. They are very different people who rarely seem suitable for each other – but they also have that central unswerving similarity in common, and the fact that none of them knows another Eater their age draws them together, even if they are angry with each other. their conflicting goals and beliefs. The filmmakers keep asking the questions with a live-wire intensity throughout the film – should these kids stay together or go their separate ways? Do they help each other as much as they hurt each other? It’s a lot of complications for a young love movie, and Guadagnino makes the boundaries of their relationship far more exciting than any question of who she can chase or who they can chase.
Bones and All will be a hard sell for many audiences given the strange way it crosses genres and tones. There is almost a camp element to the ways in which Guadagnino contrasts the appealing image of Lee and Maren holding each other quietly in a private moment, and the repulsive image of them slicked down with dark, congealing arterial blood and drawing flies like they flee from the corpse of their last victim. But the craft in the film is impressive and compelling. The casting and performances are shockingly great, especially when an all-but-unrecognizable Michael Stuhlbarg and director David Gordon Green drop in for a wonderful single-sequence cameo. And the whole enterprise is delightfully weird, the kind of movie that makes people walk away thinking “I’ve never seen anything like this.” This movie is drawn on some old, old tropes and familiar ideas. But it does it in a way that feels as new, fresh and exciting as young love itself.
Bones and All is in theaters now.
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