Movie Review: Cannibals — A Love Story? “Bones and All”

It was never going to be a horror film for everyone. And whatever its broader appeal, a teen cannibals in love story co-starring transgression-is-my-brand Timothée Chalamet was not something I particularly wanted to see.

But as a “Badlands” style outlaw odyssey with seal-the-deal-on-vegetarianism messaging, “Bones and All” beckoned. I went to see a late night showing well into the run and tried not to wonder too much about the denizens of the dark more eagerly sitting down for this two-hours-plus smorgasbord of gore.

I did not expect to like it. I didn’t like it.

I never really bought the romance of convenience set up here. Some of the subtexts director/provocateur Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your name,” “Suspiria”) suggests, in this adaptation of what is allegedly a more darkly comical novel (by Camille DeAngelis), have been given short shrift in creating a film of gruesome shock value, another startling performance by Mark Rylance, and little more.

We meet Maren (Taylor Russell of “Waves”) in a rural Virginia high school in the mid-80s. She’s forming a special friendship with a classmate at her new school, and sneaks out to join the teen’s slumber party.

The way Maren looks at Sherry (Kendle Coffey), how she drinks in her scent, suggests a fiercely hormonal attraction. Then she bites the girl’s finger off, the slumber party dissolves into screams, and bloodied Maren has to sprint to the latest ruin of a trailer home she shares with her father (André Holland).

“You DIDN’T,” is all he can say. That, and grab your things and be in the station wagon “in three minutes.” This isn’t the first time. This is some sort of “norm” with them.

But this family on the run isn’t vampires. Maren isn’t supernatural, even if we might properly label her a “monster.” As they relocate to Maryland, construction worker Dad comes to the conclusion he’s done all he can for her and bails, leaving a wad of cash and a cassette for her to listen to on which he tries to explain himself and gives now-on-her-own Maren a quest.

Her mother’s in Minnesota. She’s going to look for her and get some answers, she hopes. She’ll listen to Dad’s taped testament to her past as she Greyhounds her way west.

What DeAngelis sets up and Guadagnino films is a world of working class poverty, of “eaters” and their prey. Guadagnino and his favorite screenwriter, David Kajganich, make this a period piece — set in the pre-Internet Reagan era –and alter details of the quest that streamline it, render some situations more credible, and yet also dull its impact.

As is often the case in such journeys of self-discovery, Maren meets someone who can explain who she is to her. I can’t find mentions of a “Sully” character in reviews of the book. If he’s invented for the film, that’s a clever contrivance. Oscar-winner Rylance plays this quizzical, pony-tailed drifter in vest and jacket covered in broaches and stick-pins as a grandfatherly figure who discovers Maren by scent and who teaches her to “use your nose” the same way.

He has a seriously creepy vibe, but speaks in compassionate terms about their shared “appetite.” He feeds her — a little old lady who has fallen and will never get up again (they wait for her to die) — and teaches Maren a couple of rules.

“Never ever eat an ‘eater.'”

On her quest, Maren will scent-sense a chivalrous Ohio redneck, Lee (Chalamet) and fall in with him and seemingly in love with him, her new partner in dining crime. She will pick up on the human flesh diet of others (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me by Your Name”) even as she wonders what made her like this, and what her mother’s genes held in them that sealed her fate.

And she will ponder what Sully told her, and what he didn’t say and she didn’t pick up on.

I’d say this movie has been redirected from the novel to focus on the devouring nature of young love, but that’s not true as text — the romance seems under-motivated — or subext.

Guadagnino and Kajganich instead lose themselves in food in all its forms, and in the details — of the era, and of the lifestyle. You have to able to identify a victim whom you can overwhelm and murder. Like vampires, nobody here seems to be a picky eater — the elderly, the belligerent-victim-had-it-coming redneck and a carny fall victim.

Prey must provide you with cash, transportation you can steal for temporary use, and ideally a place to lay low and clean up after every bloody meal. Our travelers are constantly on the move, not just because of who Maren wants to find. One slip up and their moveable feast will end with their arrest and/or deserved execution.

“I don’t wanna hurt anybody” is a strange thing for Maren, whose first kill came when she was three (!?) to declare. Lee isn’t having it.

“Famous last words.”

She’s young and into Tolkien and “Clan of the Cave Bear.” Sully, the “wise old man” of this world, has moved on to Joyce’s “The Dubliners.” As if.

One thing I picked up from reading reviews of the book is how lightly DeAngelis treated her meat-eating-is-murder subtext and how reviewers picked up on the humanity she gave victims, whom Maren remembers as first-person narrator. The only thing the movie does to give the deaths pathos is having the ghoulish old man Sully save the hair of kills, weaving it into a macabre rope he carries everywhere.

Mercifully, the title is merely a tease. Repellent and graphic as its violence is, we don’t have to get bone-sucking deep into “finish what’s on your plate” to get the gist.

Chalamet’s endless pursuit of being professionally and sexually undefinable continues with this role, a tattered jeans tyro who romances Maren and lures a gay man to his death like it’s not his first or fifth time. He makes Lee one of his most interesting characters, a restless young man very much in the tradition of Martin Sheen’s “Badlands” outlaw, projecting a youthful air of cocky competence in all things

But take away the shock value and “Bones and All” is just a drab road romance that isn’t that romantic, a crime spree that seems more inspired by “convenience” than hunger and a “food” movie that’s repellent enough to make “I’ll have the salad” the new mantra of anybody sensitive enough to discern its murky message, and buy in.

Rating: R for strong, bloody and disturbing violent content, language throughout, some sexual content and brief graphic nudity.

Cast: Taylor Russell, Timothée Chalamet, André Holland, Jessica Harper and Mark Rylance.

Credits: Directed by Luca Guadagnino, scripted David Kajganich, based on a novel by Camille DeAngelis. An MGM release.

Running time: 2:11

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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