The cattle have cousins. Always. Or children. Mothers and fathers. Lifelong friends. The provenance of the herd doesn’t matter. Neither does whether they can vocalize their feelings or simply spend their lives roaming in fields. No matter the volume or vastness of memory, there is always a community left behind after a predator rips apart its prey. But the same must hold true for the predators, for the violence with which they feed is often a biological imperative rather than a malicious intent. Their ideal life would also not be one of loneliness but to find even just one alongside whom to run, to rest, to reimagine the hunt with a partner who reflects and reciprocates them.
These are the notions that concern the teenaged cannibal lovers at the center of Bones and All. In lesser hands, this adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’s award-winning, YA-leaning 2015 novel would either dilute the deadliness or amp up the absurdity. There is no coming clash between cannibal clans or yearning to cure their cannibalism. It’s not a phase. It’s who they are. And while Bones and All is hardly a slippery floor of gore, it frequently fixes firm gazes upon the human meals of its lead characters, Maren (Taylor Russell of Waves) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet of Dune).
It’s regularly upsetting because it’s the sort of decidedly un-frenzied feeding you’d expect from director Luca Guadagnino, who fuses the spooky vibes of his 2018 Suspiria remake with the swooning romanticism of 2017’s Call Me By Your Name. The result is an enveloping mixture of Nicholas Ray and Clive Barker, one daring to ask if there’s room for monsters in the world of love.
We meet Maren circa 1988 as she and her father, Frank (André Holland), must once again flee in the middle of the night. Frank believes Maren has gone years without indulging her inscrutable hunger for human flesh. Like any teen, she knows him well enough to hide it from him. Like any teen, she’s not in complete control. So when her hunger rears its head in a shocking prologue, Maren and Frank flee their ramshackle Virginia home in the wee hours.
But one morning soon after, Maren awakes to find Frank gone — leaving behind $100 and an audiotape that fills in some of the gaps about her long-lost mother. Scraping together a bus ticket to wherever she can land, Maren winds up in the Midwest — eventually meeting Lee at an Indiana grocery store. He, too, is a cannibal, one who thinks he can’t go back home but also never strays too far from it — keeping an eye on his younger sister and even venturing back briefly to offer her driving lessons.
Maren and Lee decide to set forth together — Maren finding comfort in Lee’s confidence and Lee finding solace in Maren’s companionship. Romance blossoms, but the dreams of a subdued life together are complicated by Maren’s pursuit of her mother and a pursuit of the couple by Sully (Mark Rylance), an aged cannibal obsessed with Maren.
As Sully refers to himself in the third person as if it’s the only way to detach himself from the destruction he brings, Rylance injects insidious terror in the manner of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. The Oscar-winning actor is unnerving enough to make you forgive his latest exhibit in his Gallery of Goofy Voices. (In a far smaller part, Michael Stuhlbarg turns up as another cannibal, and the usually natty actor so closely looks like he’s wandered off a Rob Zombie set that he’s difficult to recognize.)
Russell and Chalamet make for an electrifying central duo, too, bracing themselves more strongly together against the stiff social wind that awaits their beastly peccadilloes. David Kajganich’s screenplay finds fruit in literalizing the pain of feeling like teenaged years are ones in which to consume or be consumed, infusing the film with just enough outlaw flourish to flirt with Badlands or Bonnie and Clyde while maintaining the murder-ballad musings of something like Near Dark (a 1987 film then set contemporarily close to Bones and All’s 1988).
It’s hung together by a musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that is easily the best since they blew onto the scene with their electronic burbles in 2010’s The Social Network. There is, of course, the decaying warble of sunsetting synths and dying music boxes that is their calling card (and which resembles Nine Inch Nails’ instrumentals), but an original called “The Great Wide Open” blossoms into a stunning, stirring and fully orchestrated piece of scope and hope for Maren and Lee. (Carefully curated soundtrack cues from Duran Duran, Joy Division, New Order and, far more cheekily, Kiss, also enhance the moments in which they’re employed.)
Bones and All is ultimately about the pain of filling in the gaps of the life we don’t know without recognizing we are often better off simply attempting to form a new shape. But it invokes a pain that’s hardly unique to teenage years: We often slip on guises as a transitory respite from the reality of violent things that come crashing into our lives, whether that’s blood and bones on a hardwood floor or something more emotionally annihilating. It’s tough to think of a more forceful, or forlorn, fable for the forsaken in recent memory. The cattle have cousins. So do their killers.