Review: Bones and All

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Stars: Taylor Russell, André Holland, Timothée Chalamet

Pinning down a director who largely works from source materials can be tricky. The DNA of their filmography is a continuous crossbreed with the visions conjured by others. Though, I suppose, one might say this of any filmmaker who works from another’s script. Still, when the extant materials are publicly known it adds something else to the mixture. Be it an acclaimed novel (Call Me By Your Name) or a veritable classic of cult cinema (Suspiria). Where, in all of his travels, is Guadagnino?

It’s a suitable question to ask here, with Bones and All, as we find the Italian director taking on a road movie. It’s another shift in paradigm in a career filled with them, and one thinks of Guadagnino blotting an imagined bingo card of the great genres, taking another one off of the board. But perhaps more so than his previous features, Bones and All contains elements of everything that has preceded it, making it the crossing point for comparison work and maybe even a roadmap of where he’s headed next.

Adapted liberally from Camille DeAngelis’ novel of the same name by Guadagnino’s regular screenwriting collaborator David Kajganich, Bones and All is the coming-of-age story of Maren (Taylor Russell), an 18-year-old excised from the world by her peers and even her father (André Holland) when her preternatural cannibal instincts come to the fore. In the world of Bones and All, ‘eaters’ are a breed apart, akin to vampires, with their own talents and natural acuities that further separate them from the rest of humanity. Deemed outcast and rejected, Maren goes searching for the birth mother she’s never known, thus beginning a states-spanning journey on the fringes of society.

In quick succession she meets two important others who share her fate; Sully (Mark Rylance), a creepy but fatherly gypsy type who teaches Maren (and by extension us) the ways of being an ‘eater’, and later Lee (Timothée Chalamet), her peer, a rebel and soon her soulmate. Moving town to town and vehicle to vehicle with Lee, Maren closes in on her mother’s whereabouts, as Bones and All picks its teeth with the remnants of the great outlaw romances of American cinema; Bonnie and ClydeBadlands, Wild at Heart and, more recently, American Honey.

In some ways Bones and All feels like Guadagnino trying to consciously unlearn any tics or techniques that might pigeonhole him with one particular set of aesthetic cues. Arseni Khachaturan’s cinematography is loose and intimate, pocked with deliberately clumsy moments that enhance the sense of a captured summer between the movie’s two stars. It’s far removed from the dour yet twitchy mood that Sayombhu Mukdeeprom brought to Suspiria.

Yet there are commonalities that forge connections. Marco Costa’s editing does harken back to Suspiria, particularly in moments of emotional intensity for Maren, which manifest as short, quick, breathless cuts, usually reframing our perception of a single place or object. And, of course, Bones and All‘s broadly metaphorical cannibal conceit allows the director to dabble further in the guts and grue of horror. This movie is, at times, deliciously gloopy.

In it’s sense of intimate yet operatic romance, Bones and All feels kindred with Call Me By Your Name – particularly as both are set over a long, warm, formative summer in the 1980s. Both films are also keenly about memory and history, and how those things shape and determine the person one is building in the present. As if to double-stitch their connection, an almost unrecognisable Michael Stuhlbarg appears here in a single scene of memorably imparted (if circumspect) wisdom.

Stuhlbarg almost snatches the film away (again), were it not for the exceptional work of Russell. She’s shown she can hold court before (making the disposable Escape Room series a delight to revisit), but Bones and All feels like more; a career-maker. One pictures it launching her into more eclectic, far-reaching fare, as CMBYN did for Chalamet. Speaking of the wiry heartthrob, he finds something individual and charismatic in a fairly typical drifter/bad boy role here (just about); but it’s added a particular flavour thanks to Kajganich’s (wise) decision to gender-swap one of the duo’s pivotal victims. This predatory sequence of same-sex entrapment might prompt some to boil the film down to a simple ‘cannibal = gay’ metaphor, but the whole is slipperier than that. Guadagnino and Kajganich avoid such direct specificity, allowing the movie to play to any and all in society who feel othered, rejected or themselves preyed upon.

Some changes to the source (which I’ve not read but would like to) reveal themselves more keenly than others, particularly in the final act and what feels like a sudden close to the story. In the moment its easy to feel a shade short-changed (as poetic as the lingering final shot may be). But in the aftermath, as it settles, as we chew it over, it feels more and more like the right decision. As much as we want to know more about the fates of those left alive, Bones and All gives us enough along the journey to draw those conclusions ourselves.

Oddly sexless, this is a strange, sticky work for Guadagnino; a kind of gumbo made up of past themes and collaborations. The consistency changes from minute to minute, but the overall flavour is striking enough to stay with you. This feels less like the result of one particular recipe than the work of an alchemist trying to conjure magic with dashes from an arsenal of spices and seasonings. Tangy, bitter and sweet, the blend is – ultimately – still rather intoxicating.

8 of 10

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