Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) has moved from town to town, state to state, for several years with her father, Frank (Andre Holland) in an attempt to keep her safe and keep a dark secret she holds safe - namely, that she's cannibal. However, when Maren turns 18, her father abandons her and she is left to wander and meets up with others like her - Sully (Mark Rylance), a disturbed loner desperate for connection, and Lee (Timothée Chalamet), a free-spirited young man who lives according to his own rules...
Luca Guadagnino's work thus far has always been about the impact human beings have on one another, whether it be through relationships at an impressionable age like in 'Call Me By Your Name', or in his remake of 'Suspiria' where it was quite literal - human sacrifice underneath a dance company by a coven of witches trying to reanimate dead witches. 'Bones and All' feels like a fusing of these two, mixing the deep, sinewy connections we make with people when we're vulnerable, and the physical need to survive when you're that vulnerable.
Although it's adapted from Camille DeAngelis' novel of the same name, you'd be forgiven for thinking 'Bones and All' was from Stephen King. There's the predilection towards Americana; the hobo lifestyle, the soft horizons they journey across, the small towns of Missouri and Ohio, and the gore and violence that sits just off to the side of the story. The way that Luca Guadagnino blends and fuses these disparate concepts together is helped by the fact that he's assembled an exceptional cast to help bring it to life and make it authentic.
Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell have instant connection and chemistry together, Chalamet is every bit the heartthrob sensation with some questionable costume choices like he's a latter-day Keanu Reeves or River Phoenix. Russell, meanwhile, is the heart and soul of the story. Her journey to find acceptance of herself, her past, and her future is what makes 'Bones and All'. She's able to bring us into this violent and horrifying dilemma, and very often, lets the awkwardness of it sit and fester. There are no clean, easy answers in 'Bones and All' and cannibalism - as a metaphor for human connection as sustenance, and in its literal sense - is treated as honestly as it can be. It's frequently disgusting and violent, and those of a squeamish disposition should avoid it, but it's real and honest in the setting of the story.
Mark Rylance does tend to follow the same path that a lot of English actors do of late, which is excessively lean on accent and tics in order to make their performance work. It's distracting at times, but it does lend to the air of unease and tension that surrounds his character. Michael Stuhlbarg turns up for a single scene, but as always, makes a terrific addition with the limited screen time he's given.
Much of 'Bones and All' plays like a straight road-trip movie along the lines of 'My Own Private Idaho' or, more recently, Chloe Zhao's 'Nomadland'. As this is Guadagnino's first movie set and shot in the US, you can tell he's eager to bring to life the kind of nostalgia and dreamlike quality that exists in the mind of so many European directors when looking at the US. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score is equally romantic, all sweeping atmospheres and soulful guitar riffs that blend into the gentle atmosphere surrounding its softer moments. Yet, when it turns a corner and confronts the horror, it's bloody and gruesome in a way that makes it all the more potent and unsettling.
Calling 'Bones and All' an acquired taste might seem like a cop-out, but the sharp distinction between affecting romance and road trip drama with unsettling body horror can be too much for some to handle. What makes 'Bones and All' so good is that it doesn't try to shy away from either, and actually brings them into harmony with each other. When we talk about our first love and all the drama of that, it's often about your heart and chest being ripped open for all to see. Here, it's taken literally, but it's nevertheless real and honest.