Timothée Chalamet Is a Dirtbag Cannibal in the Delicious ‘Bones and All’

Consumed with the humanity on hand, Luca Guadagnino's serial killer-road film is as elegant as it is horrifying.

Timothée Chalamet Is a Dirtbag Cannibal in the Delicious ‘Bones and All’
Image:MGM/United Artists

With Bones and All, director Luca Guadagnino has achieved what seemed previously impossible: an elegant movie about cannibalism. Long the stuff of exploitation movies about supposedly primitive cultures, or stuffed into arthouse films to manufacture grand guignol, eating people has rarely received the kind of meditative examination that it does in Bones and All, which screenwriter David Kajganich adapted from Camille DeAngelis’s 2015 young-adult novel of the same name; it plays the New York Film Festival this week. Guadagnino’s rendering packages its material handsomely, underlining the human toll of the carnage that its characters inflict and leaving the impression that not a frame has been wasted by its auteur. Both overwhelming in its portrayal of desolation, and yet fascinating in its depiction of a fictional culture, Bones is the ultimate can’t-look-away experience.

Bones walks up slowly and takes a chunk out of your back. Regardless of Guadagnino’s romantic tendencies and his affinity for idyll, its opening sequence makes clear: This is a horror movie. Its protagonist, 18-year-old Maren (Taylor Russell), is on a journey to find the mother who seemingly abandoned her, but she’s also seeking to find herself. Maren, see, has a…condition that prompts her to start chomping on people, seemingly uncontrollably. Her father leaves her in the middle of the night after her latest attack, letting her know, “I can’t help you anymore.” A cassette he leaves behind details her cannibalistic history. Maren listens to it in piecemeal, and it effectively provides important biographical narration in voice over.

Maren and her kind are something like zombies or vampires who need to eat human flesh, and aren’t just doing it for kicks or ritual. On her own, Maren encounters Sully (Mark Rylance), a dandyish elderly man wearing a feather in his cap who greets her with the words, “I don’t mean to scare you.” Whether he means to or not, he is, in fact, scary. Sully, like Maren, is an “eater,” who literally sniffs her out—he can tell she’s like him and that she hasn’t eaten in a while. “You can smell a lot of things if you know how,” is just one of the dozens of bizarre things warbled by Sully, who refers to himself in the third person, giving his scenes a decidedly Lynchian feel. Guadagnino’s refusal to confirm or deny whether Sully poses a true threat to Maren maintains an uncomfortable tension well into the movie’s runtime.

But Sully’s hardly the only oddball here. Even just listening to the cannibals spell out their experience tips things toward ridiculousness, like when Maren and Sully casually discuss the taste of human flesh. According to Maren, it’s “metallic…like mud. Something tangy.” “But not like rotten,” adds Sully. “No, but close. More like vinegar,” she says.

Sully is not to be Maren’s life partner—that distinction goes to Lee (Timothée Chalamet), whom Maren runs into in a store while she’s shoplifting tampons. In what appears to be a display of selfless honor, Lee stands up for a woman shopper bullied by a belligerent man. When Maren catches him eating said man out back, it becomes clear that his move was less prosocial than it initially seemed. While she only feeds when the hunger overtakes her, and Sully implies that he only eats people who are already dying, Lee clearly gets off on the predation his condition requires. With his greasy, sporadically dyed locks, Chalamet plays Lee with a slimy confidence. A scene of him raiding a victim’s record collection and then dancing (while not exactly singing, more muttering embarrassedly) to Kiss’s “Lick It Up” (the song choice!) seems inserted to satisfy all the Chalamaniacs. It delivers.

Lee’s bond with Maren is predicated on how well they inherently know each other by virtue of their similarity. Granular details are less important. They visit his hometown and he tells her, “I can’t be seen in town. Want to know why?” She doesn’t. That’s the right answer.

Lee and Maren are serial killers (she’s more of an accomplice, but that’s splitting hairs) in Middle America, and Bones has the feel of a cannibal-driven Badlands. It takes place in ‘88 and looks like a movie that would have come out then—bleak, grainy, and diffuse, as though there’s a thin layer of grime over the camera lens. Because Lee and Maren have to keep moving, neither has a job, and as they hop state to state, they live in squalor. Guadagnino’s matter-of-fact depiction of poverty is fittingly bleak. Aesthetically and tonally, Bones fits somewhere between John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Gregg Araki’s nihilistic road flick The Living End.

what gives surprising flavors to Guadagnino’s stew is the us-against-the-world romance between Maren and Lee, as well as the film’s consistent probing of the subculture they’re part of.

When Maren expresses distress over her kill-and-run lifestyle with Lee—“we ruin lives that we don’t wanna see”—Guadagnino empathizes, panning the camera over a series of framed photographs on a nightstand near where a victim is dined on. During a particularly shocking outburst of violence, as the audio plays on, Guadagnino cuts away several times for some still, post-mortem shots of the blood-stained room. It’s an ingenious, deliberate move to reframe that which is so often glossed over in movies concerned with maintaining a good pace, but in real life gives us a true sense of the carnage that took place.

Bones and All is as discomfiting as a movie about people who eat people should be, but what gives surprising flavors to Guadagnino’s stew is the us-against-the-world romance between Maren and Lee, as well as the film’s consistent probing of the subculture they’re part of. Like queerness, eaterism (my term) seems innate. It’s perhaps inherited, but the characters here aren’t born into full families of people with a taste for human flesh. They’re isolated and met with disgust by people who don’t take part. Endowed with the ability to smell each other—a cannibal version of gaydar—they are lone wolves whose families are chosen, at best. Together, they share stories of their first times with likeminded individuals, at last. (It also makes it possible for someone to literally dine out on the culture, as one non-eater who nonetheless consumes human flesh does. He’s maybe the scariest character in the movie.)

The queer parallels are made clear by the ethnography. Bones, though, contrasts sharply with Guadagnino’s acclaimed 2017 movie Call Me By Your Name, which rather pointedly panned away from its male principal characters’ sex. At the time, Guadagnino said that he avoided portraying graphic gay sex for the sake of creating a “powerful universality.” He told the Hollywood Reporter, “I didn’t want the audience to find any difference or discrimination toward these characters.” Time has passed and different stories call for different sensibilities, but it does seem by extension that Guadagnino considers scenes of people eating people somehow less disgusting than two men having sex. Perhaps this is in tune with the current cultural climate (it could help explain why the movie Bros bombed while Netflix’s Dahmer is such a huge success). Guadagnino’s putative point here is further complicated by his movie’s most brutal scene featuring a queer guy who Lee seduces, only to murder. We watch him feasting on his victim’s chest.

As uneasy as the implications may be, at this point, around the middle of Bones and All, I had already surrendered to it. I was glad to watch these characters do what they thought they had to, or even wanted to. The viewing experience transcended politics.

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