Luca Guadagnino is one of the most surprising filmmakers working today. With Call Me By Your Name, he made statutory rape and jizzing into a peach somehow heartwarming. With his version of Suspiria, he managed the rare feat of creating a remake that felt unique enough to stand on its own.
And with Bones and All, he’s done the impossible yet again. He somehow found a way to make cannibalism BORING!
Yes, somehow, some way, this man won Best Director at the Venice Film Festival for an entry where the eating of human flesh is fused with Young Adult romance and indie road trip plot beats. All I can think is that there must have been something in the water, because this movie is the absolute height of tedium. It takes one of the most visceral and graphic framing devices for a film and renders it as a background distraction for the same tired inanity that has dragged down so many other projects in recent years. Seriously, dumb teen hormones have already ruined vampires, wizards, werewolves, and zombies, and now thanks to Guadagnino, we can add cannibals to the list. Are there any major horror groups left to wreck? Mummies, maybe? I don’t want to give anyone ideas here.
The film starts out promisingly enough, highlighting the only three things it has going for it. A young woman named Maren (played by Taylor Russell making the most of a golden opportunity to raise her profile as an actress) is a relatively new student at her high school, and isn’t the most socially active. When invited to a sleepover – one that she has to sneak past her dad (André Holland) to attend – the crux of her isolation is laid bare, as she acts on a heretofore unseen impulse and bites the finger of one of the other girls, completely stripping the skin off of it.
This is the second plus in the movie’s favor. When it deigns to be about cannibals, it does NOT skimp out on the gore. We truly do see this poor girl get mutilated in a matter of seconds, more than convincingly conveying the shock of the unimaginable pain and trauma that was just inflicted. Later scenes accomplish similar goals, as Maren and others eventually do eat the bodies of dead and living people, with all the blood and guts that this entails (or entrails, as it were). The problem, as seen throughout the rest the film, is that the focus is shifted AWAY from this awesomeness and onto the most milquetoast of love stories.
High point number three comes after Maren’s attack. Realizing what’s happened, her father packs their things and moves them to another state overnight, before eventually leaving Maren on her own, having spent 18 years trying to help her to no avail. As such, she’s completely alone, so she decides to track down the mother she never knew (Chloë Sevigny) to see if there’s a connection between them when it comes to her human hunger.
That in itself isn’t the good bit, though at least it’s a potentially intriguing plotline. The good bit is that during a layover on her bus trip, she meets Sully, played by Mark Rylance, another “Eater” who smelled Maren the moment she disembarked. Knowing the inherent loneliness of this life, Sully – who talks about himself in the third person – invites Maren to join him in the home where he’s staying for the moment, and tries to offer advice on how she can survive and come to terms with her need to feed, before asking her to accompany him as a drifter.
Now, Sully’s design is intended to be over-the-top and off-putting. His heavily-affected slow Southern drawl, his inability to detect social cues, and his costuming that makes him look like a member of the True Knot from Doctor Sleep all come together to create something appropriately creepy, and Rylance, as the best living character actor there is, is more than up to the task of making him come off as menacing while maintaining just a bit of mystery as to whether or not he’s actually the bad guy.
But as I said, this is Mark fucking Rylance we’re talking about. This is a role he could play in his sleep, and given how baggy his eyes are in some scenes, he might have been doing just that. He’s an incredibly versatile actor, but this is clearly his third-best performance of the year, as The Phantom of the Open and The Outfit are leaps and bounds ahead of this movie, mostly because those films gave him material worthy of his skills. The same goes for Taylor Russell, an amazing up and comer who can convey so much emotional weight, but at the same time has to say lines like, “I only think that I love you” to a person who eats people alive!
Once Maren decides to set off on her own again, leaving Sully slightly despondent, the picture’s quality goes straight into the toilet for pretty much the remainder of the runtime. When she makes it to Ohio (in one of the more infuriating creative choices, every time stamp and location is thrown on the screen in semi-transparent lettering, and reduced to simply the names of months and/or state postal abbreviations), she encounters Lee, played by Timothée Chalamet, and the plot comes to a screeching halt so Maren can have a lady boner for the rest of the movie.
From this point on, the story becomes little more than a cheap, CW teen melodrama. Look, I like Timothée Chalamet, a lot. He’s that rare actor who outright admits that he uses his pretty boy looks to get his foot in the door so that he can then put on strong, professional performances. He’s the reason the core relationship of Call Me By Your Name wasn’t objective cringe, and he can straddle the line between prestige and popcorn fare with ease (see: Dune).
That said, he’s completely miscast in this movie, mostly because all that matters is that people find him dreamy. As Lee, a Kentucky bad boy – a persona treated as wholly separate from killing and eating people – his character has absolutely no substance other than to be a love interest. The one bit of development he gets is that he’s super protective of his little sister (Anna Cobb) despite his nomadic lifestyle, and even that aspect, which barely counts as a second dimension, is executed in incredibly rushed fashion and then tossed off at the end, when it matters most. This is a role that is 100% beneath Chalamet’s talents. This is something that Taylor Lautner should take on as a quixotic attempt to assert that he has the same post-Twilight acting chops as Robert Pattinson, if only he got the chance. But for Chalamet, this is the epitome of slumming it, and it’s certainly not helped by the fact that, like Sully, half of his attributes come down to his wardrobe. For Sully, it was hippie vagabond. For Lee, it’s, “Hey, I’m a quasi-alternative poser teen from the 80s!” evidenced by the basic as hell dye job with his hair, his Thundercats t-shirt, and his on-the-nose affinity for Kiss’ “Lick it Up.”
The script, written by David Kajganich, is complete trash. The story never stays focused enough for us to truly learn anything, other than the fact that Maren is alternately hungry and PG-13 horny, with a few fits and spurts along the way to remind her that she’s looking for her mother. On those rare occasions that the plot begrudgingly returns to what was supposedly the main thread, it can be satisfying, especially as Maren deals with a hefty dose of confusion and self-loathing. But everything else is jumbled and trite. The first half of the screenplay seems like it’s trying to couch the narrative in some grand yet obvious metaphor for closeted sexuality, but even that’s abandoned in favor of petulant whining. And of course, nothing says “I’m not even trying” like having Maren’s father leave her a tape – A TAPE! – that she plays on her Walkman to get minor exposition dumps at whatever moment is most convenient to advance the proceedings.
Apart from the insipid structure and middle school-level dialogue, there’s a huge amount of laziness in creating this world. Whenever such odd fantasies are put out into the culture, the first question we should all ask is, “What are the rules?” Establish something, anything, that passes as a guideline for how the plot and characters are supposed to unfold, and when you go against them, provide an explanation that justifies it. I’m not asking much, and yet Kagjanich and Guadagnino patently refuse to even meet that low bar. How are Eaters created? Is their condition hereditary? Is it controllable like a chemical addiction or compulsive like animal instinct? And depending on the answer, what are the real-world consequences for the Eaters who have to live with this? We get no real exploration for any of this, but hey, we do get the super convenience of Maren running into four separate Eaters on her journey, which defies even basic math. She even comments on that, which is even more infuriating. As I’ve said before, calling attention to the faults in your work doesn’t excuse them. If anything, it exacerbates them, because it shows that you were aware of the problem and chose to wink at it rather than actually fix it.
The closest thing we get to any sort of framework comes from the characters themselves. Sully at one point tells Maren that as she gets older, the cravings for flesh will only become more frequent. Okay, but based on what? Is that just his experience, or has he met enough other Eaters to know this is part of their life cycle? Never mind that, here’s Mark Rylance in his skivvies chowing down! He also tries to ingratiate himself to Maren by assuring her that he would never eat another Eater, and that unless absolutely necessary, he won’t kill, only feeding on those already dead. Maybe that would work as a sort of societal self-regulation, kind of like in Blade when the vampires agree on how they’ll consume blood, only for Stephen Dorff as Deacon Frost to scoff that they’re negotiating with their food. But we don’t even get that, just the suggestion that it’s a personal credo, and a flexible one at that. Similarly, Lee has no problem killing, but he tries to at least keep his hunting to loners without families (sucks to be me if I ever meet him, I guess), and even that isn’t ironclad. And yet, somehow Maren still wants to jump his bones and all. This is some Padmé/Anakin shit right here!
But the most laughable thing of all is the cannibalism itself. Setting aside the cavalier nature with which all the Eaters treat the prospect of MURDERING PEOPLE AND FEASTING ON THEIR FLESH, the act itself is shown as some kind of bonding ritual, sometimes going so far as to make it a form of flirting, which is just… ew. You know that people void their bowels when they die, right? Not to kink shame, but eating dookie should never be considered romantic. And even without my mind defaulting to scatological humor, the film itself doesn’t have the balls to ask the philosophical questions needed for a situation where human beings have to reconcile taking away someone else’s life for what is depicted as a superfluous meal, only apparently necessary to sate a craving rather than to actually survive and nourish themselves.
Going further, there’s a thematic through line about the high of consuming the entire body, hence the film’s title, and it’s something that every character describes or experiences in one form or another. I’m sorry, but I call bullshit. If you want to go down this path, then commit to it. If we’re eating people, we have to acknowledge that humans have calories, just like any other food. And yet with Lee, who openly jokes that he’s 145 pounds soaking wet, we’re supposed to believe he’s eaten an entire person. He did that, but somehow he didn’t gain a single pound. Human flesh just dissolves into an ether when they slurp it up, is that it? Let’s be real, folks. I’m an overweight man, and if I eat a big meal, my gut becomes firmer, sticks out farther, and I can even become logy to the point of taking a food nap. But Timothée fucking Chalamet can chew up and swallow a whole other person, even one bigger than him, and not so much as belch? There’s suspension of disbelief, and then there’s just a giant “fuck you” from the production.
Mixing film genres is a risky undertaking, I’ll grant that, and Guadagnino should be commended for the few things he does get right in what is, by nature, a creative gamble. But it still falls woefully short. The most interesting aspects of the film are brief showcases of good gore and strong performances amidst a two-hour sea of anodyne teenage lovey-dovey nonsense and overly emotional braying about how life isn’t fair to an 18-year-old. Need I remind you that these are people who KILL AND EAT OTHER PEOPLE WITH NO EXPLANATION AS TO WHY THEY DO IT OR WHY THEY CAN’T STOP, so my sympathy tank is on empty.
Even the likes of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross can’t save this with their score, because it honestly just sounds like a retooling of everything Sufjan Stevens did for Call Me By Your Name. Hell, their original song, “(You Made It Feel) Like Home” is the rare example where if I was an Academy voter, I’d penalize the song for its context within the film, as it’s a relatively nice track sullied by its use as one last bit of unearned emotional manipulation in the closing scenes. In a weird way, though, it still kind of works, because of all the movies I’ve seen so far this year, this is one of the worst when it comes to figuring out an appropriate tone.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What other genres can YA romance spoil? Would you willingly stick your finger in Taylor Russell’s or Timothée Chalamet’s mouth if they asked you to? Let me know!