The urge to equate young love with doom and mortality probably goes back way beyond Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet. It’s such a natural narrative pairing: First loves rarely last, and youth definitely doesn’t.
For most people, that burning intensity of young love — the “Everything is new and wonderful, and we’re the first people to ever experience sex” feeling of infatuation and discovery — is likely to fade quickly. And for adults looking back on that era of their lives, the sense of loss and nostalgia can feel similar to the emotions around navigating death. But the metaphor has rarely been as startlingly vivid as it is in Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, a gory shocker that comes with plenty of familiar horror-movie elements, but plays far more like a classic road romance.
It’s a strange movie, seemingly designed to confuse both fans of Guadagnino’s previous horror-inflected feature, 2018’s messy giallo remake Suspiria, and fans of his 2017 sun-baked gay romance Call Me by Your Name. While Bones and All bridges those two movies so neatly that it feels calculated, it also raises the question of how much audience crossover there might be between the two films. Horror hounds may be disappointed by how much of the film is low-key relationship drama and coming-of-age story, low on breathless tension-building and jump scares. Romantic-drama fans are certainly going to see more bloody eviscerations than they’re used to getting in their movies. But for genre-agnostic cinephiles, the sheer daring and uniqueness of the story — an adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’ 2015 YA novel of the same name — will be a major part of the draw.
Bones and All reunites Guadagnino and Call Me by Your Name star Timothée Chalamet for a second love story. But it takes a while for Chalamet to enter the picture. Initially, the film centers on Maren (Waves’ Taylor Russell), a high schooler with a series of secrets. Maren lives alone with her father (André Holland) in a dilapidated, disintegrating home. A furtive sense of shame hangs over all the little details of their home and their interactions, but it takes a while for the film to reveal why that’s true, and what they’re both navigating. And when the reveals do come, they’re horrifying and exhilarating at the same time, in part because the details are so unexpected.
Beyond going in prepared for tremendous amounts of blood and some brief, intense violence, Bones and All is the kind of film that’s better experienced in the moment than in descriptions. Each new revelation about Maren’s past and present is unfolded carefully, in part because she doesn’t really understand her own nature, and has to learn about it alongside the audience. Screenwriter David Kajganich (a writer-producer-developer on the much-beloved horror series The Terror) never feels like he’s in a hurry to get to any particular part of the story. He and Guadagnino make plenty of room for Maren learning through conversations, first with new acquaintance Sully (Bridge of Spies’ Mark Rylance, once again disappearing into an incredible performance), then with newer acquaintance Lee (Chalamet), a world-wise boy about her age.
Viewers who don’t already know the fundamental premise of the film, and want to experience it in the theater, should stop reading right here. The early trailer and festival summaries for Bones and All were coy about what makes Maren, Lee, and others different, but public descriptions of the film have widely shared the secret: Bones and All’s wide-eyed central couple are both “Eaters,” effectively ghouls driven to devour human flesh. Their victims don’t have to be alive, but once they’ve started consuming human bodies, they have to continue, or die. Bones and All more or less follows in the footsteps of movies from Bonnie and Clyde to Terrence Malick’s Badlands in putting a pair of pretty people on the wrong side of the law and sending them on the run, but in this case, it’s questionable how human they are. And their crimes aren’t sexy and stylish, like Bonnie and Clyde’s bank robberies or the vampiric murders in The Hunger — Guadagnino makes the consumption rituals bloody, grotesque, and animalistic, an unpleasant matter of survival.
All of which gives him more room to play when it comes to romanticizing Lee and Maren’s connection. There’s a century-old tradition of sexualizing monsters and predatory behavior, and Bones and All leans into it hard, while still building the story around the old coming-of-age patterns of protagonists finding themselves (and finding their courage in the process). Maren has a lot to navigate — a family mystery, her first love, her first understanding that there are other Eaters and rules that bind them. But above all, she has to figure out who she is in Lee’s shadow, and outside of it. He knows much more than she does about the world, and Eater life, but she knows more about what she wants, and who she hopes to be, and she has to navigate how her desires meet his understanding of the world.
Like Call Me by Your Name, Bones and All is a sensual movie, particularly visually — Guadagnino luxuriates in the kind of big-sky-country vistas that made Andrea Arnold’s similarly summer-break-themed American Honey so memorable, and he lights his leads warmly in the day and with skulking fervor at night. But it’s more remarkable for the way he and Kajganich navigate the push and pull between the story’s romantic elements and horror themes. There’s a big metaphor at play here about how parents, families, and friends enable aberrant behavior until it feels normal, and how being protected from the world can make it hard to properly enter it. And it plays in radically different ways at the same time: both through the lens of two young kids on a romantic road trip, and as two growing monsters seducing and killing other people for food.
There’s an equally complex sense of attraction and repulsion at play in Maren and Lee’s relationship. They’re very different people who rarely seem suited for each other — but they also have that central unswerving similarity in common, and the fact that neither of them knows another Eater their age pulls them together, even when they’re infuriating each other with their conflicting goals and beliefs. The filmmakers keep the questions humming with a live-wire intensity throughout the movie — should these kids stick together or go their separate ways? Are they helping each other as much as they’re hurting each other? It’s a lot of complication for a young-love movie, and Guadagnino makes the limits of their relationship much more tense than any question about who might hunt them down or who they might hunt.
Bones and All is going to be a hard sell for many audiences, given the strange way it straddles genres and tones. There’s almost a camp element to the ways Guadagnino contrasts the appealing image of Lee and Maren silently holding each other in a private moment, and the repulsive image of them slicked down with dark, clotting arterial blood and drawing flies as they flee the corpse of their latest victim. But the craft throughout the film is impressive and compelling. The casting and performances are shockingly great, particularly when an all-but-unrecognizable Michael Stuhlbarg and director David Gordon Green drop in for a stunning single-sequence cameo. And the entire enterprise is deliciously weird, the kind of movie that leaves people walking away thinking “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” This movie is drawing on some old, old tropes and familiar ideas. But it does it in a way that makes them feel as new, fresh, and exhilarating as young love itself.
Bones and All is in theaters now.