Bones and All (2022) Bones and All (2022) ***½

     Sometimes you don’t realize you want a thing until it’s actually in your hands. That’s certainly how it was for me with Bones and All. Never would it have occurred to me to wish for a sweet ’n’ somber coming-of-age romance on the Fox Searchlight, Sundance Festival, “three-dozen stylized little laurel crowns on the promo posters” model, but with a pair of compulsive cannibals as the quirky young lovers. That’s just what this movie is, though, and hot damn am I here for it!

     Somewhere in suburban Virginia, a withdrawn eighteen-year-old girl named Maren (Taylor Russell, from Escape Room and Suspension) lives in a sparsely furnished house with her strict and rather harried-seeming father, Frank (A Wrinkle in Time’s André Holland). When I call Frank strict, I don’t mean just that he carefully monitors Maren’s comings and goings, limits her opportunities for unsupervised contact with her peers, and forbids her to do many things that other girls her age take for granted, although that’s all true enough. No, I mean that Maren’s bedroom has a bolt-lock on the door that can be operated only from the outside, and that her dad has actually screwed her window permanently shut. Obviously something sinister is going on in this household, and the fact that Maren not only doesn’t remember her absent mother, but has never even been told her name, looks like still another flapping red flag. Don’t be too quick to condemn Frank, though— or at least, not for any of the stuff he does to keep his daughter under control. The simple fact is that Maren has a tendency to eat people from time to time (as we see when she bites off another girl’s finger at the slumber party she snuck out to attend after her father fell asleep), and all of Frank’s over-the-top parenting tactics are designed to forestall her getting chances to do so. We get some indication of how much the man must have given up over the years to protect his cannibal daughter, too, when she comes racing home in a panic from her latest indulgence in long pig, and Frank immediately begins loading their meager belongings into his shitty old station wagon so as to hightail it over the state line into Maryland before the police arrive.

     Still, every man has his limit, and it seems that Maren has finally found her dad’s. Just a day or two after establishing them in yet another marginally habitable dump, in yet another obscure, semi-rural ghetto, Frank makes the agonizing decision to skip out on his daughter while she’s away at school. Even in this, however, he looks out for Maren as best he can, leaving behind an envelope full of cash, a cassette tape with a long recorded message detailing fifteen years of covering for her bad habit, and her original birth certificate. The latter bequest gives Maren at last a bit of information about her long-lost other parent. It isn’t much to go on, but a name— Janelle Kerns— and an address in Minnesota are at least a usable starting point for hunting up Mom in the hope of discovering some clue to the source of Maren’s strange compulsion. The money Frank left won’t get her any closer to Minnesota than Columbus, Ohio, but again that’s a usable starting point.

     Maren’s journey across the Midwest quickly leads to an unexpected discovery. Evidently there’s a whole nationwide subculture of cannibals like her, operating just below the notice of normal people everywhere. These aren’t any ordinary psychos, either. Rather, they seem to be some sort of genetic aberration, for not only does their condition apparently run in families, but they can also literally smell each other at distances from which no human should be able to smell anything short of a four-alarm fire at a Red Lobster. Maren gets her first exposure to her fellow “eaters” in Columbus, where she is sniffed out and befriended after a fashion by an eccentric old cannibal named Sully (Don’t Look Up’s Mark Rylance). The two of them bond over devouring an elderly lady whom Sully claims to have smelled dying of natural causes (he also claims to maintain a strict “no murder” policy despite his irresistible drive to consume human flesh), but Maren nevertheless decides that the old weirdo gives her the creeps. She turns down Sully’s offer to band together, and boards another northwest-bound Greyhound in the morning.

     Then, at a convenience store in Indiana, Maren meets Lee (Timothée Chalamet, from Interstellar and Dune). He catches her eye when he provokes a belligerent drunk (Sean Bridgers, of Midnight Special and Cold Storage) into challenging him to a fist-fight in the parking lot, thereby stopping the asshole from making any more trouble for all the other shoppers. And thanks to Sully’s brief but effective tutelage, Lee catches Maren’s nose as well. She locates him just as he finishes eating his fill of the jerk from the store, and thus begins a friendship trending toward more that will carry the two bloodthirsty kids across the whole eastern half of the Great Plains, plus the hills of western Kentucky. Maren accompanies Lee back home to hillbilly country, so that he can keep his promise to teach his non-cannibalistic little sister, Kayla (Anna Cobb, of We’re All Going to the World’s Fair), how to drive. Lee accompanies Maren to Minnesota, to meet first the grandmother she never knew she had (Jessica Harper, from Minority Report and The Evictors) at the address from her birth certificate, and later her deranged, autophagous mom (Chloe Sevigny, of American Psycho and Demonlover) at the madhouse in Fergus Falls to which she committed herself not long after abandoning her family. The latter confrontation leaves Maren so badly rattled that she ghosts Lee for a while, to be alone with her thoughts as she sorts through the implications of what her mother has become, and how she got to be that way. Maren seeks him out again later, though, after a second and altogether more menacing encounter with Sully. All along the way, the two kids help each other come to terms with the various unique challenges that their condition presents, and with the lifestyle it has forced upon them. Finally, at Maren’s instigation, they backtrack from the great emptiness of rural Nebraska to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to settle down and try to “be people,” if only on a tentative, experimental basis. I think we all know, however, that this was never a story that could end that peacefully or happily.

     I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Bones and All nearly as much as I did. I was drawn to it mainly out of morbid curiosity: what would happen when an even more disreputable variation on the premise to Near Dark fell into the hands of the middlebrow arthouse darling du jour? What I was forgetting as I formulated that question was that Luca Guadagnino wasn’t just the director of Call Me by Your Name and a bunch of other movies about people with more money than sense having bad-idea love affairs in photogenic regions of Europe. He was also the director of the recent Suspiria remake, and an actual-factual Italian. When you put it like that, of course Guadagnino was going to do interesting things with teenaged cannibals. Venice Film Festival awards or no, what else should we expect of an Italian filmmaker sufficiently conversant with the skuzziest horror cinema of his homeland that he’d want to remake a Dario Argento movie?

     In point of fact, I don’t think Bones and All would have worked nearly as well in the hands of anyone less committed to both of its opposing Janus faces. For one thing, we already have plenty of pure horror movies about the intersection of murder and romance. Leave out the festival awards-bait stuff, and I might as well just watch Psychos in Love or The Honeymoon Killers— or again, Near Dark— instead. But if, on the contrary, Bones and All had been another slumming arthouse picture in which the horrific elements were approached solely as metaphors for its creator’s various hobby horses, it would have been trite in a different way, somewhere along the continuum between The Addiction and Natural Born Killers. It’s also extremely important that Maren and Lee are cannibals, rather than something more fantastical like vampires or werewolves on the one hand, or something both more commonplace and more excusable, like bandits or terrorists, on the other. Those things all leave some sort of opening for plausible deniability or outright romanticism. With cannibalism, however, there’s no hiding or escaping from the ghastly foundational fact of human teeth sinking into human flesh, even with far more decorous cutting away and fading to black than Guadagnino allows himself here. Bones and All’s subject matter is unavoidably appalling, no matter how likeable Maren and Lee may be in every regard apart from their peculiar diet, and Guadagnino not only respects that, but also respects that he’s making it more appalling still by deploying every trick in the They Live by Night playbook on his deadly protagonists’ behalf.

     It’s worth noting, in light of all that, the two occasions on which Bones and All brushes up against the kinds of movies that it could have been, but isn’t. During their sojourn in Kentucky, Maren and Lee fall in one night with another pair of cannibals, who accost them in the woodland clearing where they’ve camped out to offer them both additional company and a fair share in a case of beer. One of these men is a loathsome redneck called Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg, from The Shape of Water and Arrival), who has unwelcome words of wisdom for Lee about the realities of cannibal living. The other is an inveterate thrill-seeker named Brad (David Gordon Green, who directed the latest trio of Halloween sequels), who rather alarmingly holds down a day job as a police officer. Naturally these two are setting the kids up for an ambush after they fall asleep, but the truly frightening thing about them is that Brad, despite being a cannibal, isn’t an “eater.” Unlike Maren, Lee, Sully, and Jake, who are driven by deep-seated urges only just barely subject to their control, Brad kills and eats people because he likes doing it. Then later, in Iowa, the hunger inconveniently comes over Maren in the middle of a crowded fairground, forcing Lee to select and trap a victim for her so that she doesn’t get them caught in the frenzy of her overwhelming need. He waylays a closet-case carnie (Jake Horowitz, from Shut In and The Vast of Night) by offering an after-hours exchange of handjobs in a cornfield beside the highway, but doesn’t turn the poor sap over to Maren until he gets everything he came for. The first of these situations ends with the kids escaping an attempt to engulf them in a conventional horror film, while the other turns graphically horrific just as the laziest possible subtextual reading of Bones and All is threatening to become text.

     I do find it interesting, though, that Bones and All skates so close in that moment to treating congenital cannibalism as an awkward and inapt metaphor for homosexuality, because Luca Guadagnino is himself gay. I don’t think this is a case of sublimated self-loathing, either, but rather an utter and commendable disregard for representationalism and the pursuit of respectability. Guadagnino doesn’t care, so far as I can tell, if this movie is susceptible to being interpreted as a crypto-reactionary gay allegory, and he really shows no sign of caring about the mass withdrawal to the fainting couches that the possibility of such an interpretation is virtually guaranteed to provoke from queer “allies” determined to condemn any but the most spotlessly beatific depiction of sexual minorities. Good for him. A love story about cannibals should never be respectable. It should be prepared to piss off anyone, for any reason, and if one of the cannibals is bi as well, then so what? Besides, the role of sympathetic monster has a liberative power that ought not to be underestimated.



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