The last narrative feature Luca Guadagnino directed was a 2018 remake of Suspiria, and his angle was vicious—a dark, mangled body horror so carnal it leaves the original looking like an episode of Sesame Street. The year before that he exploded onto the scene with Call Me by Your Name, the heartwrenching gay Italian countryside romance that thrust Timothée Chalamet into a peach and, thus, the pop-cultural spotlight. Guadagnino’s now back with a fusion of the two: a fleshy, gory body horror romance that rips your heart right out of your chest, Bones and All.
The three, along with 2015’s A Bigger Splash, also share a common theme: they’re all about people traveling to a new place, an unknown, which is exactly where Guadagnino wants to take us in his movies. 25 years into his career, the Italian filmmaker has proven mastery in the art of narrative shock. Even if you go into one of his films knowing what happens, you don’t know how he’s directed it—that’s what matters. He almost always finds a way to present familiar beats in fresh ways, or tweak familiar beats just enough to make them unfamiliar.
All that said, the theme also applies literally. In A Bigger Splash, our leads are on vacation. In Call Me by Your Name and Suspiria, the story begins with someone having just arrived somewhere new. In Bones and All, Guadagnino leans into the obsession of new places even more: we’re always on the go. This is as road trip of a movie as movies get. Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, you name it. If it’s a state you may not want to live in, they go there.
The “they” is Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Chalamet), our focal romance. Maren is the lead; Lee doesn’t come into the picture for a beat. Bones opens with Maren living with her dad (André Holland) before she caves to her cravings, eats a new friend’s finger at a sleepover, and the two up and move in the middle of the night, an act we quickly realize has become ritual for them at this point.
Not long, Maren wakes up to a crushing goodbye letter from her dad. The fear and dread sinks in, baked into the emotion of Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor’s score. Holland’s voice reads the letter out via voiceover that dips in and out of the rest of the movie to narrate pieces of Maren’s past she doesn’t know—like when all of this began, what happened to her mother (Chloë Sevigny), and how her dad was able to keep her secret for so long. It breaks his heart to leave, but he has to. There’s nothing more he can do. And who can blame him? How would you raise a cannibal?
“I knew this was who you are. I never thought ‘what you are,’” her dad voices over as she weeps in response, as if we’re witnessing an exchange. The film is great about not interrogating the what, or the source of Maren’s savage needs. There is no vampire myth floating in the background, no bats or wooden stakes, no ancient rituals or 2,000-year-old relatives. We don’t know why Maren needs to eat people, and there’s no one who wants to do it less than her, but she doesn’t have a choice. It’s simple: feed or die. And now she’s on her own.
She quickly learns she can smell others like her and eventually finds Lee at a convenience store, where he stops a guy from harassing her by luring him outside and eating him in an abandoned house. Lee is a trashy-looking punk fella with gashed jeans, a vibe that screams “I’m hiding something,” and hair that looks pink not out of choice but from some grave lack of hygiene. He wears a thin, frayed rope for a belt and a long-sleeved waffle shirt two sizes too small. It seems as if Chalamet is determined to play more and more grimy, disheveled, unlikable characters—and really live into them—to test his fan base. And to his and his agent’s credit, Bones and All is right up their alley.
He somehow ends up being a heartthrob, as always, even in his repulsion. His uncanny ability to make everything he says and does feel real is magnetic. Regardless of what he’s doing, it rings genuine, unacted, witnessed—like we’re experiencing something caught on camera, not simply watching a movie. Russell is just as good. Where Waves and the Escape Room franchise could only get her name and face on a poster, Bones and All could bring her the renown she deserves.
The chemistry between Chalamet and Russell is off the charts. Their love is desperate, passionate, true, confused and confounded, perpetually crushing under the ethical crisis they face in killing innocent people to survive, not to mention the fact that they feel very differently about it. But through all of this clashing they conjure a sense of impenetrable connection, the kind that renders explosive conflict a mere hurdle opposed to a threat to the relationship. However, there are threats to the relationship. They’re just freaky people.
For one, there’s Sully (Mark Rylance), the first one she meets, who teaches her how to use her smell to find others. He gives off the vibe of a carny who’s been around for centuries. He has an oily, Willie Nelson-length braid (and a braid made from the hair of his victims to match!), wears a dirty vest, talks in an eerily high and calm voice, says strange things (“Let me bone down on this!”) when he’s angry, drives around aimlessly in a kidnapper van, and feeds in tighty-whities that end up filthy. He unintentionally leaves pieces of organs hanging from his mouth after he’s done—drunk on the feeding, seemingly unable to process how off-putting he is. And he’s in love with Maren.
Then there’s Jake (an incredible Michael Stuhlbarg), who puts Sully’s creepy carny energy to shame. He’s an overly cheery, loony, overalls-only kind of guy that sleeps in the woods, feeds recreationally (i.e., murders people), and has a tag-along bestie who doesn’t need to eat people… just wants to. Both he and Chalamet—and even Rylance, in his own bohemian way—reflect junkie redneck types, like they could be Woody Harrelson’s meth fiend henchmen from Out of the Furnace.
I certainly wouldn’t call Jake or Sully romantic threats, but they are awful, looming physical and psychological threats whenever they’re around. They’re the kind of people you’re slowly backing away from the whole time you’re talking to them. That Jake never lifts a finger against anyone is a perfect example of subtle narrative trickery in Guadagnino’s hands. It’s not just about surprising us with what will happen but with what won’t happen that we expect to. He’s got us on a yo-yo.
The movie is about so much more than cannibalism. It digs at the somatic (from all angles) question of what it means to partner with someone in different contexts and sets off on a full-fledged expedition in exploration of what we’re willing to do or sacrifice for the people we love and how that affects those around us. Most devastatingly, it’s about how we perceive ourselves, how we come to believe we’re “good” or not. The romance is serene, and its Trouble Every Day-esque feasting often takes place only partially onscreen or just off. But the weak-stomached will still want to avoid at all costs. The sound design is so visceral, so close that you wonder if they’re gnashing and slurping their way through your organs and you’re just numb.
The past four Guadagnino films also mark a trend in telling previously told stories in his own way. A Bigger Splash and Suspiria are remakes, while Call Me by Your Name and Bones and All are adaptations of novels, the latter written by Camille DeAngelis and penned for the screen by David Kajganich. It’s a small thing, but points once again to Guadagnino’s creative preference for iteration, for using the old as a foundation for the new. Remakes, reboots, adaptations, and the like are a tired sub-industry today, but if people were approaching them with as much gusto, as much confident originality as Guadagnino, it would be as exciting a realm as original features.
Bones and All premiered at the Venice Film Festival and will open on November 23.