“When you’re 140 pounds soaking wet, you need to have an attitude.” So says Timothée Chalamet in Bones and All, taking one of the few intentionally funny lines in Luca Guadagnino’s ludicrous cannibal romance drama and giving it a little bit of witty, self-deprecating topspin. The title of Camille DeAngelis’s 2015 YA novel about a pair of star-crossed, flesh-eating lovers rambling through the Reagan-era United States refers to its antiheroes’ grotesque gustatory habits, but it also works as a double entendre about its It Boy headliner. No matter how much human viscera Chalamet’s Lee chows down on over the course of 130 minutes, his A-list ribcage remains visible through his scrawny torso.
Chalamet isn’t really the star of Bones and All: that’d be Taylor Russell (so striking a few years ago in Waves), whose 18-year-old character, Maren, provides our entry point into a slightly skewed and yet naturalistically rendered universe. It’s 1988 in the American heartland, jobs are scarce, and in every small town, a few clandestine drifters lead bloodthirsty double lives, picking off loners and eating them under cover of night. In a carefully designed and largely effective prologue, we meet Maren, who’s living in a trailer park in Virginia with her single father (André Holland). They’re tight, but dad leavens his affection with wary concern. Maren tells a high school classmate that he’s overprotective, but there’s clearly something else going on.
Later, after sneaking out for a sleepover—and, it’s implied, a potential make-out session—with her new gal pal, Maren takes the other girl’s hand to examine her manicure. She ends up chewing the skin right off the bone like a chicken wing. Rushing home in a panic, she’s greeted by her father, who’s less horrified than disappointed—resigned to an itinerant lifestyle that we gather has been going on for some time now. Grab everything you can, he tells her, and get in the car.
Gross stuff, to be sure, and of all the strange detours taken in recent years by major international filmmakers, Guadagnino’s hard turn into body horror is perhaps the hardest to reconcile. In florid, campy dramas like I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, the Italian director flashed a wild but genuine talent for visual and tonal excess, surfing nimbly on crashing waves of emotion. The latter features luxurious storytelling and several tour de force moments, notably Ralph Fiennes’s full-body lip-synch to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” (a set piece repeated in Bones and All when Chalamet vamps over Kiss’s “Lick It Up”).
In 2017’s Call Me by Your Name, Guadagnino found a way to filter that larger-than-life pop-art sensibility through a literary pedigree and ended up with one of the more beloved prestige pictures of recent years: a crowd pleaser that still retained a degree of mystery. Before being memed and discoursed to death—and separated from its significance as Chalamet’s official movie-star-coming-out party—the film earned its praise as an uncommonly tender and perceptive coming-of-age story, one attuned to youthful fears about love, sex, and identity. The charm of Chalamet’s performance lay in how his inexperienced character used cockiness to disguise and deflect uncertainty; his Tom Cruise–in–Risky Business charisma was suffused with a believable air of confusion.
Given the sun-drenched, mellow vibes of his biggest hit, it still seems surpassingly bizarre that Guadagnino’s next move was to try to remake Suspiria, his elder countryman Dario Argento’s canonical 1977 giallo, a movie that not only got everything right the first time, but did it with such distinctive, idiosyncratic flair that any attempts at replicating it would be doomed to fail. To his credit, Guadagnino didn’t really try to replicate Suspiria or its deep-red aesthetics, but unfortunately the elements that he added—like a six-part, episodic structure, a grayscale color scheme, and some mega-pretentious sociopolitical subtext—illuminated nothing new. In fact, it turned Argento’s romp into a slog. Overlong, obscenely violent, and ultimately less subversive than numbing, nu-Suspiria was the kind of failure that only a talented and ambitious filmmaker could make. The hypothetical silver lining was that having gotten it out of his system, perhaps the filmmaker could pivot away from genre tropes for which he showed no real gift.
Bones and All isn’t quite as brutally protracted as Suspiria, and its ratio of shocks to stupefaction is slightly tighter. (It also doesn’t feature anything as gimmicky as its predecessor’s latex-encrusted, triple-role performance by Tilda Swinton, whose faith in her director was misplaced.) But it isn’t that much better, either, and there’s nobody to blame for that, really, besides the high-rolling filmmaker presiding over the project with total, self-conscious control. Where some fiascos are clearly the result of either creative indecision or behind-the-scenes chaos, Bones and All looks and sounds like the movie Guadagnino wanted to make. It’s been shot (gorgeously) in drab, rusty tones by cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan, who can charge a rural landscape at dusk with real, creeping menace; the swift, occasionally elliptical editing by Marco Costa scrambles the language of jump-scare clichés. The filmmaking is accomplished, even inventive in places, and yet for all the obvious effort, it mostly succeeds in reminding us of other, better stabs at similar themes and imagery, including and especially Claire Denis’s 2001 thriller Trouble Every Day, with its nightmarish conflation of death and desire.
While nobody would call Trouble Every Day an accessible movie, it at least offered up an explanation—however obliquely goofy—for why the characters played by Beatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo were trying to literally consume their sexual partners. What’s odd about Bones and All is that the predations of its featured “Eaters”—not only Maren and Lee, but the older and more experienced lifer Sully (Mark Rylance) lingering at the edges of the story—don’t seem to “mean” anything. They’re not symbolic or suggestive, just empty of anything resembling class, gender, or generational tensions. There’s no clear metaphor here like in the zombie movies of George A. Romero and his descendants, nor a sense of viscera-as-philosophy as pioneered by David Cronenberg.
That lack of intellectuality isn’t necessarily a problem: In a moment when every other A24 freak-out is billed as a treatise on trauma, we could use more good, straight-ahead horror movies (which in turn explains the robust box office for Barbarian and Smile). The thing is that Guadagnino, with his high-toned approach, isn’t the guy to give them to us. Nor is he even going to try. Every precisely framed shot and winking I-love-the-’80s needle drop in Bones and All is dripping with artistic intent to the point of parody, and yet they never accrue into anything like an actual artistic point of view. It’s as if Guadagnino simply figured that by mashing up a number of movies that, in different ways, touch raw and exposed nerves—most notably the lovers-on-the-run lyricism of Badlands and the murderous codependency of Let the Right One In—he’d get under our skin. But by the time he’s shooting Lee smashing a hapless victim with a crowbar like one of the apes from 2001 (or Daniel Day-Lewis at the end of There Will Be Blood), he’s moved into a realm of citation for its own sake, too obvious to be scary.
The actors do what they can and, in the case of Rylance, more than they have to. While there’s no risk of his winning an Oscar for a movie this outside the box, the decorated British thespian gives the kind of scenery-chewing, For Your Consideration performance that evinces a mixture of sarcastic amusement and grudging, you-gotta-hand-it-to-him respect—the same formula he applied to his scene-stealing, socially inept tech guru in Don’t Look Up. If Maren and Lee are essentially desirable ciphers—vessels allowing Russell and Chalamet to crumple up their faces and tangle their limbs together passionately in a bid for Twilight-style pathos—Rylance’s Sully is an expressly literary creation. He’s got a silly hat and a ponytail; he speaks in the third person in a thick, unplaceable accent; he appears out of nowhere like a ghost; he poses enigmatic riddles. In terms of how he’s used by the script, Sully is a completely mechanical figure, introduced first to provide exposition about his and Maren’s condition (they can seemingly sense each other, and others like them, across great distances by smell) and then as a lurking, potentially dangerous foil.
Guadagnino likes it when actors go over the top, and Rylance has competition in the supporting cast from Chloë Sevigny in a wordless, wide-eyed role as an institutionalized woman, and a nearly unrecognizable Jessica Harper (star of the original Suspiria) as Maren’s nervy grandmother. There’s also a memorable, what-am-I-watching-here cameo by Michael Stuhlbarg (so good in Call Me By Your Name) that plays like a stand-alone short movie—an example of the episodic, stop-and-start pacing that hampers the film as a whole. For road movies to work, they need a restless, relentless sense of momentum. Bones and All drags excruciatingly, especially in the middle when its characters’ guilty indecision about their lifestyle and its collateral damage starts to feel repetitive rather than compelling.
At one point during their travels, Lee and Maren visit a country carnival, and there’s a lovely, fleeting image of them sitting together on a Ferris wheel, ice creams in hand. They could be archetypal American teenagers. Guadagnino probably wants the whole movie to feel this way, like a series of snapshots that capture the blissful sensations of young love while hinting at the savage impulses lurking underneath. The problem is that he’s so determined to indulge his own savagery that he ends up in the realm of pure, audience-baiting provocation. It’s a good place to be if you are, say, Lars von Trier, but it’s no-man’s-land for a filmmaker whose anger or outrageousness always seems whipped up as an afterthought. The same maximalism that makes Guadagnino potentially vital in an art-house ecosystem geared toward less-is-more auteurs also exposes his bad taste—as opposed to tastelessness, which might have been a better vibe for this premise. A truly off-the-leash director might have made Bones and All indelibly strange; in Guadagnino’s skilled but uncertain hands, it’s an elaborate and finally pointless bit of exploitation-movie cosplay—a provocation without a purpose, a point, or even a shelf life beyond the upcoming awards season.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.