Every director is entitled to at least one mistake. In the case of Luca Guadagnino, the mistake was to follow the sublime Call Me By Your Name with a muddled, pretentious remake of Dario Argento’s classic horror, Suspiria. So it’s gratifying to report that Bones and All takes a significant step back in the right direction. With a screenplay by David Kajganich, based on a novel by Camille DeAngelis, it’s a film that recklessly crosses several genres but ultimately emerges as something quite unique – part horror film, part road movie, part love story – and the various components work together brilliantly.
We’re on the shabby backstreets of Reagan’s America in the mid 1980s. Maren (Taylor Russell), an eighteen-year-old high schooler, lives with her father (played by André Holland), who keeps her under a tight rein, even locking her in her bedroom every night. But after receiving an invite to a slumber party, she sneaks out to join up with three friends for an evening of gossip, booze and makeovers. It’s all going swimmingly until, without warning, the fun stops…
After what happens, Maren and her dad are obliged to skip town and, shortly thereafter, Maren wakes up to finds herself abandoned. Her father has walked out, leaving only some money and a Walkman, with a lengthy explanation for his actions captured on cassette tape. Maren discovers that she is an ‘eater’ – someone who is drawn to feasting on human flesh, a condition passed onto her by her mother, who abandoned her when she was a baby. Maren decides her only option is to go in search of her mom in the hope of finding a solution to her problems.
En route, she encounters Sully (a deliciously creepy performance from Mark Rylance). He’s a fellow eater, who has managed to track her down by her familiar smell. Sully offers her companionship and claims he can be her protector, her guide to this unfamiliar new world – but, despite spending some time with him, even sharing one of his ‘meals’, she grabs the opportunity to escape at her earliest opportunity and goes on with her journey. And then she meets another of her kind, Lee (Timothée Chalamet), with whom she finds she has much more in common. The two of them bond and decide to travel together. As they drive across country, they begin to wonder if there is any escape from their current situation.
Calm, languorous and set against the epic scenery of the American West, Bones and All is an incredibly compelling story, by turns romantic and repugnant. Make no mistake, the feeding scenes are explicitly visceral and can be hard to take – the film’s 18 certificate is there for a reason. The central allegory of the story suggests many themes, but to my mind the key one is addiction. The more Maren and Lee strive to break out of the life they’ve begun to hate, the more circumstances conspire to pull them back into its tenacious grip.
Those who find gore unsettling may prefer to give this one a wide berth, but if you can tolerate some carnage, there’s so much here to admire. I can honestly say I’ve never seen another film quite like this one – and I’m fascinated to discover where Guadagnino goes next.