The Sensual Thrills of “Bones and All”
Minor spoilers for the first 20 minutes of the film.
There’s a bit of Rapunzel in the opening scenes of BONES AND ALL. We open on a mobile home in the outskirts of a nameless Virginia town. The place is inhabited by an adult man and a young girl — father and daughter, perhaps. The girl appears rather meek, with a small frame and a low, pouting face that hints at some childlike inquisitiveness. She keeps to herself, her name is Maren.
The father figure keeps close tabs on her, always on edge. He makes one thing abundantly clear from the beginning: under no circumstances is Maren allowed to associate herself with anyone for an extended period of time. This is underscored by the way of life he has framed which prioritizes discreetness and obscurity above all else. The little girl has curfews. Serious ones.
Does the world pose a danger to Maren? After all, they do live in what appears to be an outer slum. Dangerous elements could run amok. A quick glance of the father’s troubled face would lead you to believe otherwise. Something is profoundly wrong. We’re intrigued by the visuals unspooling before us.
Where as Rapunzel lay captive amidst the bucolic splendor of a Grimm’s fairy tale, Maren lives in squalor. Possibly another victim of systemic injustice. Possibly a criminal on the run, though one usually begets the other. The vast stretches of country side in which Rapunzel laid her weary gaze gives way to the patchy residential homes of a decrepit Virginian suburb.
Half the mobile homes appear to have been erected sporadically, with flimsy design. Lines of electrical towers loom over their neck of the woods, hoisting power cables that throttle power into the far distance. Anywhere but here. The lines between fairytale and reality begin to dissipate.
One night, Maren sneaks off to join a sleepover with some schoolmates. With them, she feels alive. You get the sense that this feeling of camaraderie registers as something foreign to her. You’re compelled by her plight. Later, she joins a friend under a coffee table and they compare varying shades of nail polish. The kinds labeled “copper fever,” and “Cinnamon glaze.” It was the 1980’s, after all. That’s when the other shoe drops. Something disgusting and shocking takes place. This is where we learn that Maren is a cannibal.
Director Luca Guadagnino’s vision comes alive through this focus in real-world, textual detail. Rather than take away from the dreamlike logic of a classic fairytale, it supplicates. We can appreciate the breezy, sparse movements of the film’s fairytale storytelling but are invested more so in the ancillary details — the mad chirping of crickets in a summer night; the warm, but insufficient lighting of a decrypted mobile home; the buzzing power lines that loom over the land. This is a film that is felt and heard.
In fact, the most blood-curdling depictions of graphic violence have a touch of that dreamlike gloss. That milky shade reminds us that, again, we are experiencing a film that is rooted and partly-rooted in fantasy. When both elements counterweigh each other, the unbelievable becomes wholly convincing.
One particular set-piece features an interaction with another cannibal. An older man who offers guidance in exchange for companionship. Maren rolls with the man, but not without hesitation. She’s lead into a seemingly vacant home and is fed raw chicken. On the page, this scene serves an expository function. Light is shed on Maren’s affliction, and she’s ostensibly set on a journey that’ll define the rest of the film.
I won’t spoil this particular scene — truly, the reason why I chose to write this piece — but I implore you to take note at the ancillary details: the bloated flies hovering around the premise, the hazy fog that looms about the house, the crunching of bones by a breakfast nook that feel like something rooted in real-life.
Furthermore, the antiquated knick-knacks and tapestry conjure a lived experience — the history of a family in decline. This all leads to the reveal of the film’s most horrific sequence made inevitable by all this visual detail. Though we are lifted on wings by the hazy gloss of this mysterious world, we are once again throttled back to earth by the horrors of human consumption.
From here on, Maren is a woman on the run. One with an inherited, dark secret. This is where BONES AND ALL solidifies itself as a road trip film. A cross-country romance in which Maren learns of other similarly afflicted cannibals. Some live in the margins, mildly dimming the flames of hunger in what ways they can. Others thrive, embracing their cannibalism as nothing more than just character quirk. Like one would fiddling their hands.
Enter Lee, played by the ever-charming Timothée Chalamet, a fellow cannibal. A string-bean. A wayward follower of his own sporadic desires. We first witness him seizing up some potential lunch, hounding around in his lack-a-day garb, like some hippie vagrant. Maren introduces herself out back.
Lee returns the gesture, absolutely covered in blood. The marker of a successful hunt. Dirt and sweat suffuse from his pores, giving the young man the look of some bloodied ghoul. And yet, set agains’t the glow of magic hour and the country ambience of nowhere-Maryland, Chalamet resembles a falling sunset. One part horrific, one part intrepid. All part fairy tale prince.
Design on a film like BONES AND ALL must have presented a mammoth undertaking given the importance of localities. In essence, all production design must act as the center column of a complicated, motorized machine. In a road film, it must be virtually invisible. Something light and unfussy, given how much territory we cover. We start in Virginia and quickly breeze through a number of states, including Maryland, Indiana, Ohio, and Nebraska.
It’s speaks to the talent of designers, Elliott Hostetter and Giulia Piersanti that this films works on the two levels I’ve outlined above: a breezy fairy tale and a visceral horror experience. Every scene is tinged appropriately in just the right amount of detail. We don’t need to see a corn field in Oklahoma, or the great lakes in Michigan.
Like the best fairy tales from childhood, sparsity is key. The key that unlocks the imagination, allowing us to accept this cannibal romance for the freewheeling journey it is.
As of writing, BONES AND ALL can be rented on Amazon prime