Two lovers, both on the fringe of society, chart out a journey through America’s backroads searching for normalcy in a world that rejects them. The story sounds cute, right? Think again. The bond these lovers share is not one that would be Hallmark-approved, because their status as societal outcasts comes entirely due to the fact that they are cannibals. It’s a story that The CW wishes they could have told, but director Luca Guadagnino — of “Call Me by Your Name” fame — got there first with his newest film “Bones and All.” What he delivers is a slow, meaningless journey that is not as provocative as he thinks and is more fitting for a three-episode arc on “Riverdale.”
The movie’s lovers are Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet). Maren has been abandoned by her father, so she embarks upon a journey searching for her mother. In the early stages of her trip, she encounters Lee in a grocery store because, get this, cannibals — or as the film classifies them, “eaters” — can recognize each other by scent. This is a fact that Maren learns when approached by Sully (Mark Rylance), an older and more experienced eater, at a bus stop in Ohio. Maren and Lee quickly form a passionate relationship that takes them from the mountains of Kentucky to the plains of Nebraska, never really doing anything the entire time.
And that is what’s most enraging about the film — it is unable to follow through on what at first seems an exciting setup. The film is essentially a vampire movie that, for whatever reason, tries to fit within the logic of the real world, embedded in a tonally-conflicting moralism. Obviously murdering people and eating them is a bad thing to do, but this film still feels the need to drive that point home. A darkly comedic scene where Lee murders one of his victims by slitting his throat while giving him a handjob in a cornfield is completely ruined when, in the following scene, Maren and Lee find that the victim had a wife and children who are now distraught over the disappearance of their dad. There’s a time and a place for films to explore the complex morality of murder, but that place should not be “Bones and All.” This film had potential to be a modern take on classic B-movie exploitation tropes. But whenever it comes close to matching that aesthetic, it opts for a more boring approach. To put it bluntly, the movie should have been way weirder.
The movie is actually a bland romance with two leads that have minimal chemistry. Lee is as mysterious and bad as the mysterious bad boy could possibly get, and Maren is the naive “moral” cannibal who doesn’t know what to do with herself. Add some slicked back hair and leather jackets, and you’ve got an off-kilter “Grease.” But sadly, “Bones and All” isn’t full of song and dance. Instead, it’s chalked to the brim with admittedly beautiful but otherwise empty shots of open American countryside complimented by romantic dialogue barely a step above a Wattpad fanfic.
What is labeled as “the cannibal love story” ultimately isn’t as daring and provocative as it may seem. For shock value, there’s a scattering of relatively graphic cannibal scenes, but this which fails to comport with the rest of the film’s approach to cannibalism. Instead, cannibalism is depicted as more of a flimsy allegory for people who are in some way, shape, or form outcasts. There are moments where the two lovers lament over their eternal societal rejection, but it’s hard to feel particularly bad for them because the reason they are outcasts from society is due to them eating humans. A pretty valid reason.
Guadagnino’s approach to “Bones and All” is reminiscent of his work in “Call Me by Your Name,” when it should have instead followed in the footsteps of his 2018 horror film “Suspiria.” A story like “Bones and All” doesn’t work when treated tenderly. It needs to be dark, twisted and at times, disturbingly funny. Just the occasional bit of gore does not do enough to satisfy this. The romantic elements of the film bring up similar themes to what was explored in “Call Me by Your Name,” but this time they aren’t welcome. “Bones and All” doesn’t work as a cannibal “Call Me by Your Name” because it really should be a cannibal “Bonnie and Clyde.” As it stands, it’s neither tame enough to be sweet nor daring enough to be exciting.
Finn Kirkpatrick is an arts & culture editor. He is a junior from Los Angeles, California studying Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.