A lot of genre films have problems with authenticity and specificity. They have stock characters, nondescript locations, perfunctory direction and such. This is especially true for horror. More often than not, a horror film will have an interesting premise but suffer from irritating blandness, newcomer actors giving hollow performances, modern white suburbia settings, Magnolia decorated McMansions with poor lighting. Period horror films are often even worse, having all these same shortcomings in addition to tired and ostentatious decade signifiers to distract from the lack of effort in cinematography or production and costume design. And the 1980s may be the worst decade of all for this, for they represent the peak of nostalgia pandering, where new wave/pop soundtracks, retro product placement, and poorly reproduced hairstyles stand in place of actual direction.
Then there’s the issue with Young Adult literature adaptations. As much as adult YA readers insist that their favorite YA titles teem with complexity, it can’t be denied that most of them are written for young, still-developing minds, and limit themselves only to those topics which teenagers can easily grasp and appreciate. They’re not catered to adult tastes. Just as any adult can enjoy well-made picture books or children’s films, YA novels can certainly be appreciated for their merits—fun, high concept plots, heightened emotions, easy relatability—but they often lack the richness and nuance of good adult literature, which then translates to a twee and emotionally simplistic film (see: John Green). With these pitfalls in mind, Bones and All, an ’80s-set horror romance based on a YA novel by Camilla DeAngelis, should be one of the worst movies of the year.
Bones and All is one of the best movies of the year.
It should come as less of a surprise considering director Luca Guadagnino has had huge successes in ’80s period YA adaptations (Call Me By Your Name), and horror (Suspiria). He reunites with Suspiria screenwriter David Kajganich, who makes several crucial changes to DeAngelis’s novel. The book centers on Maren, a shy outsider who cannibalizes those close to her, abandoned by her mother at sixteen-years-old and seeking the father she never knew, all the while encountering other cannibals, some nice and some not-so-nice, along the way. Kajganich switches things around, having Maren (Taylor Russell) living with her beleaguered father, Frank (André Holland), completely in the dark as to her mother’s identity and history. There would appear to be no connection between her victims, either. Maren doesn’t feed as some kind of reaction to intimacy, but as a primal and unstoppable hunger, vampiric in the sense that it must be sated, but absurd in its lack of function. In this world, self-named “Eaters” don’t need flesh to survive; they simply must have it, as with the self-justifying logic of addiction.
These changes serve the film well. By putting Maren with her father, her alienation becomes twofold. Having to move from town to town in order to escape the consequences of her appetite effectively eliminates any chance of close friendship while also fostering fear and resentment in her only companion, a parent whose compassion has given way to exhaustion. But snuck within this is also an inherent disconnect between a parent and child of the opposite gender. Frank’s abandonment of Maren at eighteen-years-old as a result of one too many late-night escapes resembles a familiar domestic rift, that of fathers who disengage from daughters as they enter womanhood. Franks shirks his fatherly role because he no longer has control over his daughter’s autonomy. This style of metaphor recurs throughout the film. As Maren sets out to find her mother and ultimately a sense of belonging, she encounters a number of scenarios that illustrate the loneliness and ostracization that results from cannibalism, but could just as easily result from commonplace circumstances, from the many situations in life that lead to desperation and isolation—poverty, broken families, addiction, mental illness. The ambiguity of the literal illness widens the possibilities for what it may represent, and the film doesn’t let those possibilities go to waste.
Early on in her journey, Maren encounters fellow Eater, Sully (Mark Rylance), an unsettling but hospitable tramp with rotting teeth and eccentric dress, a grotesque corruption of the wise sage. The night she spends with Sully, and subsequent encounters with others, guide her to the knowledge of what she is, but she will find these characters pursue companionship in the same way they pursue flesh: deliriously, obsessively, and eventually with thirst for power. He won’t be the only Eater whose warm reception masks a depraved soul, what inevitably must develop in a person after decades of houselessness, forced solitude, transience, and survival through murder. Maren finds one kindred spirit in a fellow Eater, that being Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a twiggy drifter punk of similar age from Kentucky. While Maren’s pursuit of her mother, Janelle (Chloë Sevigny) drives her forward, she ultimately finds solace in Lee, whose estrangement from his own family is rooted not just in his cannibalism but in a pattern of self-imposed exile resulting from a traumatic incident with his parents that has left him guilt-ridden and subject to his hometown’s aspersions.
Russell and Chalamet do well as leads, mainly because they have great, sensual chemistry. Despite Chalamet’s innate charms, Russell proves to be the more charismatic of the two. She doesn’t make a meal out of scenes but subtly navigates her way through them, combing notes of innocence, jadedness, and tender vulnerability under a guarded mask, always distrustful but yearning for connection. If it weren’t for her and Chalamet, the central characters would be overshadowed by the unbelievably good supporting performances. André Holland brings both warmth and weariness to Frank, who in a lesser movie would be a non-entity. Chloe Sevigny is heartbreaking and disturbing as Janelle in a performance that will join the top ranks of single-scene supporting roles. Returning from Guadagino’s other horror venture, Suspiria, Jessica Harper does an equally brief but memorable turn as Maren’s estranged grandmother.
Michael Stuhlbarg, who played Timothée Chalamet’s father in Call Me By Your Name, gives an unforgettable, stunning performance as a truly unhinged Eater fetishistically trolling for meals with a psychotic non-Eater cop played by director David Gordon Green. Maren and Lee’s encounter with the pair solidifies their abhorrence of what they are forced to do and the horror they feel in response to those who derive pleasure out of it. But what elevates the film to an even higher plane is Mark Rylance’s masterful work playing Sully, a deranged, sad, menacing amalgam of Robert DeNiro’s Max Cady, Ed Gein and Elmo. Childlike, sinister, and all the creepier for the fact that he has no idea he’s creepy. His early appearance in the film makes such an impression that he becomes a specter for the rest of the film, a subject of both repulsion and magnetism. We both dread and yearn for his return.
And all this goes without mentioning the technical artistry at work. Guadgnino departs from his frequent cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, instead working with Arseni Khachaturan, whose work on last year’s Beginning and Eyimofe: This Is My Desire showed him to be adept at capturing the grainy, natural light film look that vividly situates this film in the proper time period. Using high speed 35mm Kodak, Khachaturan captures the grit and texture of the coastal south and flyover countries in the 1980s with many rich golden hour and night-time compositions. Completing this wonderful verisimilitude are Elliot Hostetter’s brilliant production design (his work on Neon Demon and The Beach Bum inform his work here, incorporating both stark and ominous liminal spaces and intricate, lived-in set decoration) and Giulia Piersanti’s detail oriented costuming and hairstyles, which Guadagnino also benefited from in the early 80’s set Call Me By Your Name. Lastly, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross compose a haunting and eclectic, minimalist score that includes their patented industrial and synth tones but also sparse, melancholy guitar and piano pieces with very few notes, all of which culminates in a devastating original song, “(You Made It Feel Like) Home” that gives the film’s final moments a resonance that lasts for weeks.
Guadagnino perfects his directorial craft in Bones and All, indeed relying on talented collaborators but propelled by a remarkable vision. It can be said to draw on other work, having the lonesome, twisted romanticism and brutality of Near Dark and the Malickian pastoral flourishes out of Badlands and Days of Heaven, but there’s something distinguished about Guadagino’s vogue sensibility, a kind of glossiness that can somehow renders a sweaty, grimy, animalistic world with a poetic sheen, and it’s this polish that acts as a magnificent emulsifier. Deep down Bones and All tells a familiar story, that of disparate people looking for kinship, for stability, and for the grounding and comforting power of love and, tragically, inevitably, having it slip through their fingers. Guadagnino balances the ugliness confronted by those doomed to wander and the beauty of the fleeting moments of happiness that they crystalize into fantasy in order to make that ugliness easier to stomach. | Nic Champion