Luca Guadagnino is a filmmaker that I can struggle with sometimes. No matter the movie, be it A Bigger Splash, Call Me By Your Name, or Suspiria, just to name a few, I always find myself appreciating his work more than enjoying it. Sometimes, it can seem like Guadagnino is flirting with pretension. His latest film, Bones & All, does manage to avoid that. At the same time, this road trip horror romance instead meanders, mixing it’s occasionally jarring gore with a fair amount of repetition. Playing at the Telluride Film Festival, it certainly stands out, if not always in the manner in which you’d have hoped for.
Bones & All is Badlands with cannibals, if you want to break it down to its cinematic…bones. Guadagnino adapting this particular Young Adult novel is an interesting choice, though it still results in his usual amazing shots and uniformly strong acting. If there’s a shortcoming here, aside from the pacing (more below), it’s that the story itself doesn’t warrant the 130 minute running time.
Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) would love to be a normal teenager. When we meet her, a friend is inviting her over to a sleepover. She says she can’t go, but is encouraged to sneak out. Even just as she’s doing that, we see that her father (André Holland) locks her in her room. It turns out, he has good reason, too, since Maren eats the finger of her friend after painting nails. She’s a cannibal, which he’s been hiding for years. Immediately, they’re on the road again, to a new town with a new identity. On her eighteenth birthday, her father is gone, leaving just some money, her birth certificate, and a cassette explaining that he can’t help her anymore.
On her own, Maren heads towards where her mother might be. In short order, she finds other people like her, including the creepy Sully (Mark Rylance) and the brooding yet cool Lee (Timothée Chalamet). Riding with Lee, a friendship blooms, eventually turning into love. Having never met anyone else like her, she’s now encountering them, coming into her own in the process.
The duo of Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell are very much on point here. Chalamet is at ease with Guadagnino, freeing him up to have a lot of fun with this role. Russell builds on what she showcased with Waves, turning in complex and even heartbreaking work. Their chemistry together is slow to build, but it fits the characters and their arcs. Mark Rylance hams it up a bit, but he’s such a good actor, he mostly makes the character work, even if he narratively sticks out like a sore thumb. Supporting players include the aforementioned André Holland, as well as Anna Cobb, David Gordon Green, Michael Stuhlbarg (basically a cameo), and more.
Director Luca Guadagnino, working again with scribe David Kajganich, adapts the Camille DeAngelis YA novel, mixing in gore/horror with some very Terrence Malick-like road trip visuals. The screenplay by Kajganich is the weak link, giving Guadagnino too many opportunities to meander. The script also shortchanges a few too many characters, rushing through certain elements while dragging with others. At the same time, the visuals from Arseni Khachaturan are luscious, while the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is haunting. Bones & All certainly isn’t lacking in the technical achievements. It just doesn’t add up to quite as much as you’d hope.
Bones & All finds the road trip romance in young cannibalism, though it meanders a lot along the way. How much that impacts your enjoyment is up to you. Those looking for more of a prestige flick could be put off by its gore and overall gnarly nature when it comes to the devouring of flesh. At the same time, horror buffs probably will want less Badlands than they get here. So, we have an interesting movie, one of the more interesting ones at Telluride, but one that’s kind of caught between two cinematic worlds.