In Timothee Chalamet’s very best performances, he seems to step, ever so slightly, away from human physicality. For Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, his Laurie moved like a marionette on strings, a perfect little puppet boy onto which the March sisters could project their own wants and desires and now, in Luca Guadagnino’s extraordinary Bones and All, he transforms into more of a wild animal. Prowling yet protective, lethal yet loyal, he looks like a coyote that’s learned to walk and talk, a perfect fit for this story of roving young cannibals, elevating an already brilliant film to unforgettable, irresistible heights.
For all his magnificence, and inevitable prominence in the marketing, Chalamet is not actually the lead in this adaptation of the YA novel by Camille DeAngelis, adapted by previous Guadagnino collaborator David Kajganich. Instead, he’s the love interest, a roguish drifter called Lee who ends up on a road trip alongside the more anxious and inexperienced heroine Maren (Taylor Russell). As is the case in most YA stories, Maren is different from her peers but, unlike most of Bones and All’s genre stablemates, it’s not for a pleasant reason. She’s a cannibal, compulsively driven to eat raw human flesh, a trait she shares with Lee and many of the story’s villains.
Guadagnino and Kajganich build this slightly folk-tale world with great skill, introducing us to an off-kilter version of ‘80s Americana. Cannibals here are a small but thriving sub-community within the continental USA, imbued with an ability to literally smell each other out (there are some subtle but incisive parallels drawn here with so-called ‘gaydar’, outcasts of all stripes able to find one another wherever they are). Each cannibal – or ‘eater’ – has their own rules and coping systems, and they’ve even got their own in-group lingo; the title refers to the maybe-impossible act of eating every single part of a kill.
You buy into the conceit almost instantly, and a lot of this is down to Russell’s performance. Through her, you see the simultaneous fear and ecstasy of this slightly supernatural version of cannibalism and her central journey to find her birth mother after her dad abandons her (following an attempt to eat her classmate’s finger) is one that is deeply felt. It helps that the whole thing is edited so empathetically, serene and slow whenever Maren feels safe and calm, but jagged and disorienting whenever her fears kick in. As Lee joins her on her quest, Bones and All shifts into love story territory and it’s easily one of the most romantic films of the year, achingly tender even as the gore flies.
And oh how the gore flies. Teeth and knives rip into bodies, blood and chunks exploding across the sets. Bones and All is seriously not for the faint-hearted, and the fact that it manages to keep Maren and Lee sympathetic despite their vicious actions is a towering achievement. Helping to this end is Mark Rylance as older cannibal Sully, a deeply sinister mentor-turned-villain figure who has a fearsome reputation even among the ‘eater’ community. To convince as ‘the worst of the bunch’ in this dark and filthy world is a big ask, but Rylance is more than up to it, giving one of the best, most disconcerting antagonist performances of 2022.
As well as the love and gore, there are some bigger ideas at play here too about how violence thrives under the conditions America provides it. Avoiding major cities, Bones and All instead travels through the small towns of the Midwest, places where people can disappear without questions being asked and where the roads are so empty that a truck driven by two young adults soaked in blood will attract no attention. Even the location titles are see-through, hammering home just how ephemeral life in the flyover states can be – with little more than a whisper, someone can be forgotten.
It’s all beautifully shot by cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan, capturing the immensity of the American landscape, Maren and Lee often just dots on the horizon. Natural light dominates many of the frames, and the dawns and dusks are stunningly gorgeous. As ugly as Maren and Lee’s lives might sometimes *feel*, Guadagnino never uses that as an excuse to skimp on the prettiness and style. Skies glow with colour and the costuming is sublime – Lee and Sully in particular always look like they’ve just stepped out of some old American myth, larger than life characters that can conquer this rugged landscape. Naturally, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is also fantastic, completing an atmosphere that is not quite inviting but nonetheless gets its hooks in deep.
Fittingly, Bones and All gives you a hell of a lot to sink your teeth into, but it never forgets what primarily keeps its blood pumping. At its core, this is the year’s most effective and affecting romance, taking a teen heartthrob story and making it as grand and visceral as possible, all the way to a majestic ending that won’t leave your mind for days on end. As one particularly creepy fellow cannibal (played in a scene-stealing cameo by Michael Stuhlbarg) says to Maren and Lee; ‘there’s before bones and all, and there’s after’. He doesn’t know just how right he is.