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Bones And All Review: A Romance That Will Literally Eat You Alive

EDITORS' RATING : 7.5 / 10
  • Mixes romance, drama, and intense scares
  • Beautifully acted, shot, and scored
  • Weird structure makes it feel long and unfocused, especially towards the end

Let's get this out of the way first: Yes, "Bones and All" is a reunion for "Call Me by Your Name" director Luca Guadagnino and star Timothée Chalamet (with a memorable one-scene appearance from Michael Stuhlbarg as well), and yes, it's about cannibalism. But no, it has nothing to do with the other star of "Call Me By Your Name," alleged cannibalism fetishist Armie Hammer. It's based on a 2015 young adult novel by Camille DeAngelis and is less about any sort of real-world cannibalism so much as inventing its own monster mythology. Hammer might like this film, but it's definitely not about him.

"Bones and All," which screened at New York Film Festival, centers around Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell), a high school senior who is constantly moving around the country with her strict single dad (André Holland). In a striking moment of violence at an illicit sleepover, we learn why Maren is restricted from socializing or getting too close with anyone: She's an "eater," a human who needs to feed on other humans in order to survive. Eaters are similar to vampires in some ways but far enough from the standard tropes of vampirism that their workings are a bigger mystery.

When Maren's dad leaves her with a cassette tape and her birth certificate on her 18th birthday, she sets out on a journey across the country to find her mother. Along the way, she meets other eaters including Sully (Mark Rylance), a creepy yet sad old man who teaches Maren about the ethics of how her kind operate, and Lee (Chalamet), a handsome boy who becomes Maren's friend, lover, and most dedicated protector in the face of danger.

Emotions over metaphors

Thinking about the past decade of horror movies, particularly in the arthouse or "elevated horror" sphere, there's been a popular trend towards using horror elements as direct metaphors for grief, mental illness, and other serious realistic themes. Yes, you can say horror has always been a genre of metaphors, but there is something to be said for how the likes of "The Babadook," "It Follows," "Hereditary," and so on have put relatively straightforward metaphorical meanings front and center above all else. Some films in this style are excellent, but many horror fans have voiced a desire for more movies that are less self-consciously message-driven.

"Bones and All" might be arthouse horror, but it's a break from the trend. I couldn't tell you definitively what its horror elements "stand for" — not due to being confusing a la Guadagnino's previous horror experiment "Suspiria," but due to the film's refusal to fit them neatly into any clear-cut allegorical boxes. Is it about poverty? The characters are poor, and the Reagan-era setting will inevitably invite reads about struggling to survive within a world of unethical capitalist excess, but this feels more like background than a primary focus. Is it about addiction? Comparisons are made, but it's not beating you over the head with them. A queer metaphor? It would be a very problematic one if so, and making the film's most explicitly gay character one of the eaten rather than one of the eaters seems like an attempt to dissuade such readings.

Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar, and sometimes a movie about people with an unexplained compulsion to eat other people is just a movie about people with an unexplained compulsion to eat other people. You'd be hard pressed to try to fit the moral dilemmas the eaters face into something "relatable." Instead, it's a fascinating thought experiment that stresses emotion over message and applicability over allegory. The viewer's sense of connection with the characters comes not from relating to the story itself, but to the emotions which this fantastic scenario brings out in them. We might not be able to place their cannibalistic drive into some neat metaphorical framework, but we can connect emotionally with Maren and Lee's troubled family relationships, internal feelings of guilt, and the thrill of first love.

A strangely structured story

As Maren travels from state to state on her journey, "Bones and All" moves slowly with an episodic structure. It's a while before she meets Lee, and even longer before their relationship really takes center stage in the film. While Guadagnino continues to excel at passionately depicting youthful infatuation, the main driving interest for much of this story is less the love story and more Maren's search for her mother and, by extension, some understanding of her own violent nature.

This search climaxes with one of the scariest scenes I've ever experienced in a movie. There's still quite a bit of movie to go after that, though, and it never quite matches the same heights of intensity, despite one more big attempt at frights at the end. Some of the scenes following the end of Maren's quest involve necessary emotional resolution and the chance for her and Lee to process each other's traumas and fully connect with one another. Other aspects of the film's concluding scenes, however, end up feeling either meandering, rushed, or forced in as a means to push the film to its admittedly well-foreshadowed conclusion.

This structural messiness can make "Bones and All" a bit frustrating at times, but it's compelling in spite of its flaws. The cast is strong across the board: Russell and Chalamet's chemistry is palpable, Rylance and Stuhlbarg relish their more over-the-top characters, and Holland, Jessica Harper, and Chloë Sevigny all make the most of their limited screen time. Arseni Khachaturan's 35mm cinematography is beautifully of a piece with the '80s milieu, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver yet another incredible musical score.

Despite all the talent on screen and behind the scenes, don't expect "Bones and All" to get anywhere near the Academy Awards  — horror films have to be capital-G Great to be taken any bit seriously at the Oscars, and "Bones and All" isn't a great movie. What it is, however, is the exact sort of flawed yet heartfelt and blood-filled film I can easily imagine becoming a cult favorite.

"Bones and All" opens in theaters on Wednesday, November 23.