The beginning of Bones And All is genuinely the stuff of nightmares and could easily stand alone as a short, tapping into the American tradition of the urban myth while at the same time laying down a deceptively sophisticated narrative. The rest of Luca Guadagnino’s latest doesn’t quite maintain this level of mastery and tension, which is in some ways a blessing, but that’s possibly because Bones And All isn’t really a horror movie. After the shocking opening salvo, the film sheds its genre skin to become an almost anthropological study of outsiderdom, using the false dawn of the American 1980s as a sort of petri dish for a new kind of conformity that has led us where we are today.
This opening scene involves a new girl in high school, Maren (Taylor Russell), who lives in spartan digs with a father who is very much also her keeper. Invited to a sleepover, Maren creeps out of her bedroom, which is locked from the outside, to join a group of her peers. It’s the John Hughes moment, when the odd duck is accepted, but this, of course, is a Luca Guadagnino movie and there is no sugar coating: a scene of small but traumatic violence occurs, and Maren’s panicked return home explains everything: the lack of décor, the lock on the door and the bags ready-packed just in case.
This proves too much for Maren’s father, who makes a moonlight getaway and leaves his daughter with a taped confession, explaining why he left and why Maren is what she is: a cannibal. The revelation sets Maren on a journey of discovery, heading off on a road trip to find her birth mother, seemingly the source of this curse.
But just as Maren finds herself alone, she realizes she is very much not alone: as she waits for the Greyhound bus, she is befriended by Sully (Mark Rylance), a sinister gentleman of the road who claims to know Maren’s secret and takes her back to what appears to be his home. But appearances are always deceptive in Bones And All, and when Maren finds out the gruesome reality behind Sully’s set-up she takes off again.
The next time, though, it is she who spots the fellow traveler, correctly identifying Lee (Timothée Chalamet) as a kindred spirit after seeing him in a supermarket, sizing up a victim. Lee initially rebuffs Maren, but the two nevertheless strike up a simpatico relationship, at which point the film acquires the vibe of a lover’s road movie, with a dynamic in the vein of They Live By Night or maybe Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.
Once on the road, there is a picaresque quality that, for once, suits the material, as Maren, with Lee, begins to become aware of the true scale of the cannibal community through chance interactions with its members and admirers (a cameo by director David Gordon Green is especially memorable in this regard).
There’s also a disturbing scene of disordered domesticity when Maren finds her grandmother — a chilling but emotionally powerful performance from Suspiria’s Jessica Harper (presumably, like Call My By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg, who pops up to be eaten, she is now one of Guadagnino’s repertory company). Casting, in fact, is central to the film’s sense of surprise, no more so when Chloë Sevigny puts in a very unexpected appearance.
The film has to end, of course, and at a certain point it is on a hiding to nothing, since an ambiguous ending would be a disappointment and a rounding-off end would — and kind of does — shatter the mood. Possibly because it’s based on a novel (by American author Camille DeAngelis, who presumably posited it as riposte to Twilight), there’s a point, when Sully unexpectedly returns, at which storytelling kicks in at the expense of sensation and mood, but there’s also a sense that something is missing (the title promises a physically and intellectually juicy set-piece that never quite arrives).
Nevertheless, there is a lot — no pun intended — to chew on here, about people who feel disenfranchised, unloved and unwanted. The ending may disappoint, but it also ensures the film will have a life as an imperfect masterpiece, the best kind of cult film, after all.