The timing of Bones and All’s theatrical run is indicative of how slight signifiers in a film’s marketing strategy can greatly change its public perception. Released a month earlier, this young-cannibals-in-love road trip story would’ve been treated as a major studio Horror Film, falling somewhere between the somber-epic mythmaking of Doctor Sleep and the teen heartthrob pop-horror of The Twilight Saga. By holding it off until November, MGM was able to position the film as a prestigious Awards Contender instead – something that loses money in the short-term, then hopefully buys the studio a couple golden statues months down the line. As a result, I’ve been seeing a lot of grossed-out responses from audiences who were expecting Bones and All to be more of a straightforward road trip love story, repulsed by its most shocking moments of blood-guzzling, flesh-chewing violence. As someone who twiddles their thumbs for most of the stretch between Halloween & January Dumping Season on the film release calendar, I’m coming from the opposite direction, wishing Bones and All weren’t so tenderly underplayed & remorseful about its hunger pangs for gore. It’s kinda nice to have something that drifts between those two magnetic pulls, though, especially since it’s so unusual to see a Near Dark-style genre blender treated as a genuine threat to Award Season’s more traditional biopics & historical weepies. The exact same cut of this movie would not have had that fighting chance if released in October instead of November, which is exactly how silly & arbitrary this entire “Best of the Year” selection process is on an industry-wide scale.
I was amused to see Bones and All‘s dual nature as a somber, awardsy drama and a viciously violent cannibal movie reflected in the casting of its two leads. Certainly, the Oscar nominated Tiger Beat heartthrob Timothée Chalamet is the film’s biggest draw, as it relies heavily on his twinky dirtbag charms as history’s scrawniest leading man. As a genre-trash connoisseur, though, I was most excited to see Escape Room‘s Taylor Russell get her due as the film’s front-and-center protagonist, as she’s a far more powerful emotional anchor than that high-concept, low-execution horror franchise likely deserves. Here, Russell headlines a coming-of-age story for a teen girl in rural 1980s America who’s going through an unexpected Raw phase: channeling her newfound adult instincts & urges into sudden acts of cannibalism. Abandoned by her family, she seeks a home & a self-assured identity on the road, where her natural scent as “an eater” is frequently clocked by fellow cannibals. Against the odds, she hooks up with Chalamet’s fellow loner eater and makes a small, manageable place for herself in the world where she can live without pain & guilt. Only, no matter how much she personally heals from her traumatic past, it has a way of creeping back in to ruin her progress – mostly through the villainous presence of Mark Rylance as an old-timey hobo (doing his best Rose the Hat). Bones and All is equally balanced as an understated road trip drama about pained personal healing and an eerie supernatural horror about the wounded souls & vicious monsters at the fringes of American rot. Which version of the film you see in that Rorschach test-in-motion is a matter of personal disposition and might even change from scene to scene.
I reacted to this movie the same way I’ve reacted to every Luca Guadagnino picture I’ve seen: sustained appreciation without total elation. Guadagnino consistently makes good movies—never great ones—precisely because of his tendency for dramatic restraint. With his two outright horror films (the other being his 2018 Suspriria “remake”), you can feel him actively fighting that impulse, reaching into the depths of Hell for transcendence & catharsis instead of his usual grounded frustrations & melancholy. Bones and All digs as far down as it can into the mud, blood, bone shards, buzzing flies, and ash of its underground-cannibal America, but it still feels self-consciously reserved & tethered to reality – recalling the authenticity-obsessed docudrama of American Honey more than the horned-up ferocity of Trouble Every Day. The doomed lovers of Bones and All never fully give in to the transcendent pleasures of their grotesque hunger. The hellish pool party of A Bigger Splash never fully devolves into the blood-soaked, poolside orgy it threatens to be. Armie Hammer never bites into that cum-filled peach. For a lot of audiences, that restrained approach to over-the-top genre tropes is what makes Guadagnino great; it’s what makes Bones and All a sincere Awards Contender, unlike other artfully grotesque horrors of the year like Mad God, Flux Gourmet, and Men. For me, it’s what keeps his work from ever fully accessing the cathartic release those tropes tap into, an approach that feels more timid than admirable. It’s apparently what gets you in the door to compete with The Fabelmans instead of Barbarian, though, so what do I know?
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