Bones and All‘s Prestige Arthouse Cannibalism Needs More Bite

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Bones and All‘s Prestige Arthouse Cannibalism Needs More Bite

This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 New York Film Festival coverage.

Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) isn’t like other girls. This is because she’s got an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Since her first incident with a babysitter at the age of three, Maren’s father, Frank (André Holland) has been running from what his daughter is. So, he’s prepared when Maren comes home one night after sneaking out at the urging of a classmate, the latter sensitive to the fact that Maren is the new girl at school, yet a little judgmental all the same in that specific way that teen girls just are. While gabbing and painting fingernails, a close, seemingly romantically-coded moment with one of the other girls becomes suddenly violent—Maren rips off her finger with her teeth, blood and viscera stretched off the shredded limb. She runs home and her father immediately understands what just happened, and he knows that it’s time for them to leave again.

From Virginia, the father and daughter head to Maryland, but it’s not long after they settle in a ramshackle home before Frank decides that he can’t do this any longer. He leaves Maren with her birth certificate, some money and a cassette tape explaining his actions and a life Maren has led but that she’s failed to fully comprehend. So, what is this abandoned 18-year-old cannibal to do but set out on her own in search of something better? In his return to feature film four years after his remake of Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’ YA novel of the same name is, at once, tender and tedious, gorgeous and lifeless, endless and intriguing. Bones and All is a heart-tugging portrait of wayward spirits searching for belonging that deadens the genre of cannibal horror into digestible, prestige-glossy arthouse.

The narrative revolves around Maren’s limitless, soul-searching road trip through America—too easily compared to Malick’s Badlands—encountering other “eaters” like her along the way and eventually teaming up with one: Lee (Timothée Chalamet).

This was my first Chalamet film where the loose threads in his performance dangled out a little. His introduction in the film is somewhat jarring; his tone of voice is dull and expression too blank, as he is meant to be a shit-starting punk in a grocery store, standing up for a mother briefly harassed by a drunkard. Chalamet just isn’t convincing in moments of outburst, and his moments of affection with Maren are similarly stilted. There is something missing from his eyes, and he is just as unpersuasive when he speaks, as if he is trying too hard to convince us of his character as opposed to simply being him. (A line reading of “I felt high as a motherfucker” during a moment of emotional intensity is laughable.)

Before Maren and Lee’s grocery store meet-cute, Maren encounters the strange Sully (Mark Rylance). Wizened and eccentric (he literally wears a cap with a feather in it), Sully is a lonesome but experienced eater who could smell Maren and her hunger from a half a mile away where she waited for her connecting bus. Sully gives Maren her first lesson in how to be who she is and proves crucial to her journey of self-discovery. But she doesn’t quite trust the old man, nor can she shake him even after she bails for her bus the next day. Rylance was the best aspect of the film, his performance hilariously and mistakeably identical in nearly every attribute (except the cannibalism) to Family Guy’s predatory Mr. Herbert. It doesn’t feel accidental either; it is so uncanny it’s as if Rylance specifically set out to model his performance after the cartoon. I am honestly a bit plagued by this. Has anyone else noticed it? Has anyone asked Rylance about it? Is he a huge fan of Family Guy and this happened unconsciously? These questions linger with me more than most of the actual film!

Closely following Rylance as a standout is Michael Stuhlbarg, finally set free from the shackles of beleaguered scientists and professors and completely playing against type as a dirty, overalls-donning backwater cannibal. Stuhlbarg’s character, Jake, introduces Maren and Lee to the concept of “bones and all.” The meaning is as simple as it seems: Eating a victim completely, their bones and all. Thematically, the phrase seems to indicate the unconditional love that freaks like Lee and Maren can only find in other freaks just like them, which is where the metaphorical implication of cannibalism becomes unclear. There’s an argument to be made that it’s a placeholder for the isolation of queerness, the film very noticeably taking place in the 1980s, but once it’s revealed that this thirst is passed down from parent to child, I wondered to myself—a chill running down my spine—“Oh, God, is this about inherited trauma?”

Bones and All isn’t another addition to the “actually about trauma” canon. But for a film that is also about cannibals, Bones and All is far too tame, and too dull, and a chore to sit through. I’m not asking for The Green Inferno or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it’s a tepid approach to man-eating horror that strips the subgenre of any real, tangible passion (even Raw, a film I am extremely lukewarm on, did this better). Cannibal horror is given a sleek, lifeless arthouse sheen without the texture or pulp it deserves, beautiful but visually unexciting—which takes away from much of the emotional impact of such a ravenous story. Bones and All is a gorgeous patchwork of rural American landscapes (cinematography credited to Arseni Khachaturan), with a handful of arresting transitions and a score by the powerhouse team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But it all feels like a hollow shell harboring little underneath, especially not enough to sustain all 138 minutes.

I wonder if Bones and All is about inherited mental illness, and the struggle to find kinship when beset by a body that detaches you from most others through the nature of an existence that you didn’t ask for. It could be about any of these things I’ve mentioned—it could be about more, or none of them at all. That’s probably intentional. But peel back any layers of over-analysis and interpretation, and Bones and All is just a simple road-trip romance about loving someone so much that you could eat them alive. It’s a sweet, timeless sentiment, but it could use more bite.

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: David Kajganich
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Taylor Russell, Mark Rylance, Michael Stuhlbarg, André Holland, Chloë Sevigny, David Gordon Green, Jessica Harper
Release Date: November 18, 2022

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.