Bones and All
starring Taylor Russell, Timothée Chalamet, Mark Rylance, Michael Stuhlbarg
screenplay by David Kajganich, based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis
directed by Luca Guadagnino
by Walter Chaw Luca Guadagnino's Bones and All is every single thing I like packed into one film: a swooning gothic romance; a gory and uncompromising cannibal movie; an American Honey middle-American travelogue; and a vision of first love as a consumptive, Romanticist fire. Shot in dirty sepia tones by DP Arseni Khachaturan (if you've not seen Dea Kulumbegashvili's Beginning, Khachaturan's lensing is one of the dozens of reasons you should remedy that), it has about it an atmosphere at once nostalgic for the 1980s, during which it's set, and aware of how the passage of time memorializes everything into unreliable emotional histories. I have no intellectual mechanism for retrieving memories--it's all about the feel. I realized during one scene that a girl, Kayla (Anna Cobb), was wearing a Cyndi Lauper T-shirt, and the impossible tangle of reactions I had made what might happen to her unbearable to contemplate. She became precious to me in an instant. She is somehow part of my history. (A disgusting person will later wear a Dokken tee, and I had a visceral reaction to that, too.) The picture's needle drops, from Duran Duran's "Save a Prayer" to Joy Division's "Atmosphere" and New Order's propulsive/mesmerizing "Your Silent Face," offer evidence of a creative team who listened to the whole album instead of cherry-picked singles; the music is used as a mnemonic device for oldsters and a gateway drug for their kids. I still remember one doomed summer day in high school that started with my friend picking me up for us to go record shopping, Love and Rockets' fourth album whirring away in his cassette deck, my hand porpoising through the air of my open window--that feeling of being completely alive. So alive. Kate Bush just enjoyed a renaissance--I can only hope the same for Ian Curtis and Bernard Sumner after the Timothée Chalamet hive assimilates this film into their holy doctrine. It's worth appreciating how "Atmosphere" and "Your Silent Face" are both anthems about finding your voice or making a statement through silence (ditto "Lick it Up," off the first KIϟϟ album where they take off their makeup), and so these aren't merely nostalgia triggers. Every element of Bones and All helps to amplify Guadagnino's themes of discovering who you are in the midst of the whirlwind.
Taylor Russell is Marin, an awkward teen immediately legible as lonesome who gets invited to a popular girl's sleepover even though Marin's overprotective father (Andre Holland) forbids it. "Sneak out," she's instructed, and so she does, crawling out the window of her shitty house in the crap part of town in a ratty, shapeless robe that instantly sets her apart from her cute buddies. You suspect shenanigans--a complicated plot to humiliate the weird girl--but no, these are basically good kids reaching out to the social pariah partly out of decency and maybe a little morbid curiosity. They listen to music, do each others' nails, and then Marin does something unspeakable--and just like that, she and her dad are on the run. Again. After a couple of weeks in their new place, Marin wakes up to an envelope with two fifties inside and a cassette tape she pops into her Walkman. (The headphones have worn orange foam on the earpieces, and I'm transported again.) It's a recording her dad's made for her telling her that when Marin was three, she chewed the face off a babysitter--that she's a...thing...that needs to feed on human flesh periodically.
"Maybe I didn't love you like a father should," he demurs, but he did his best, and now he's done, and Marin is on her own. In a bus-station sequence that reminded me of Caleb's attempts to get home after being bitten by a vampire in Near Dark, Marin starts in the direction of an address on an old, folded birth certificate her father's left her. She only has enough to get her part of the way. Bones and All is Near Dark first, then Drugstore Cowboy and, of course, Ravenous in its gleeful carnage and delightful black humour. On further reflection, maybe the film it's most like is Trouble Every Day. Mark Rylance finds the perfect fit for his alien detachment in "eater" Sully, who smells Marin as a fellow eater from "a quarter-mile away." He shows her the ropes in an indescribably uncomfortable scene before Marin's alarm bells finally start going off and she flees eastward. She next meets strung-out drifter Lee (Chalamet), who provides her cover as she shoplifts lunch and toiletries from a small grocery. They decide to strike out together. In a line that crystallizes the tightrope this movie masters between the sublime and the debauched, Marin suggests, after a lot has happened, that they settle down and "act like people for a while. For a while."
Guadagnino manages the impossible with Bones and All: He's made a road movie about two rebellious outsiders seem fresh and new. Well, more alien than new. When Marin and Sully dig in for the first time, we listen to the disgusting noises they're making and witness the animalistic poses they're striking during their meal. Meanwhile, Guadagnino and Khachaturan contemplate the dresser covered with pictures of their breakfast in happier times. What lingers in my mind is how their victim is alone in a giant house with only her ghosts--and these ghouls--for company at this moment of death. Marin finally has a reunion with her mother (Chloë Sevigny), an electric standoff in cramped quarters whose only real dialogue is from the recitation of a letter, handwritten in spidery script, that's been waiting for the younger woman for 15 years. So much of the film is told this way: efficiently, yes, but as a seasoned dance partner might offer you counterbalance and grace. Marco Costa edits Lee and Marin's trips across the belly of this country in skips, smoothing over the empty spaces with temporal stutters like an impatient viewer bypassing 30-second chunks of a video. But when he lingers, as in a sequence set at a remote Nebraska gas station that reminded me as much of the Starkweather sequence from Matthew Barney as it did Springsteen's Nebraska and Malick's Badlands, it's rapture. They are monsters. In mother's letter, she says, "The world of love wants no monsters in it," but I think she's wrong. The world of love is bigger than you think--and maybe we use the term "monster" too loosely. Marin cries to the heavens about the unfairness of it all like the child she is, discovering the cruelty of others. Lee, not disagreeing, says, "How dare you make this harder." My god, that's a beautiful moment: a puncturing of self-dramatizing solipsism that is not only an acknowledgment she's right about the difficulties of navigating an endless night but also a challenge of, "Yes, so what now?"
Bones and All can be read in so many valuable ways or taken at face value. Like Guadagnino's Suspiria, it has about it a miraculous empathy for outcasts and minority populations. That one was about how women's maladies are turned into syndromes by the men who study and treat them, this one is about how becoming comfortable in your skin and creating a family that understands and accepts you for you is the work of a lifetime. Both Marin and Lee have stories about parents who despised them as magnifications of the things they most despise about themselves--about breaking away only after the trauma from the abuse and abandonment they've suffered has sunk its stubborn roots deep into them. Marin does get answers to a few of her questions. She also crosses paths with other "eaters," like a terrifying nomad named Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg), who approaches her and Lee with a case of Bud and an invitation to hang out at the rest area they've all been drawn to for its isolation and privacy. How do I describe Jake's friend Bradley (David Gordon Green), a cop and...fetishist? A familiar? "He's teaching me how to smell things like you do," Bradley says. Revolted, Marin replies, "No, he's not." Guadagnino and Khachaturan shoot Stuhlbarg etched in relief around a campfire as he tells his repulsive stories, his eyes as black as a shark's.
Bones and All is a slow burn. Whenever it decides to be scary, it's among the scariest movies I've ever seen because of how much we've come to care about these kids. It's heartbreaking their families are broken, that they're on their own without having been armed for the wilderness. Marin rages at the cards she's been dealt: "Do you know how different this could've been if I had one person on my side?" Lee agrees it's awful, but she has no idea what real suffering is. She will in time, but not yet. It's devastating when they try to play domestic: her getting a job at a bookstore, him repairing bridges he's burned with his sister and mom. It's devastating when it all falls apart again. Familiar, too, because our lives are these peristaltic waves of outrageous fortune and excruciating loss. Of wishes that come true and it's wonderful and wishes that come true and it's terrible. Bones and All is Guadagnino's best film, though he hasn't made a bad one. It's another of his surgical excavations of the intersections between passion and shame, personal history and collective experience. Here, cannibalism is ecstatic: a ritual canonized in the rite of Mass (which is literal, mind you, not a metaphor); and a term for fucking (i.e., consummation) that proves more accurate than euphemistic. We are savage infants who only know divinity through hunger. Guadagnino is an artist. And Bones and All is art.