Luca Guadagnino wants to retain his arthouse/mainstream cred – an Italian filmmaker, he primarily makes movies in English with prestige name casts – while hoping for a parallel life as an auteur of horror. Much as one might cringe at the term ‘elevated horror’, it’s possible Guadagnino is among the few creatives who genuinely aspires to it. Adapting a novel by Camille DeAngelis, he delivers a road movie set in the drab dusty 1980s which is also an oblique monster movie. Its creatures who walk among us are called ‘eaters’ and primarily seem to be cannibals – though they sort of act like vampires and might have some kinship with the wendigos of Ravenous. A thing that distinguishes Guadagnino’s approach is that the script by David Kajganich (The Terror, Guadagnino’s Suspiria) – I don’t know if this is true of the novel or not – features human monsters who are relatively uncurious about what they are and the limitations or benefits of their feeding habits. Eaters thrive on human flesh, but does cannibalism help them heal (sometimes?), live longer than normal or have super-powers beyond precognitive visions and an acute sense of smell which enables them to recognise each other. With ambisexual icon Timothée Chalamet in a lead role, this sniff power is inevitably a form of gaydar. Though the main pairing here is heterosexual, the notion of monster as sexual outsider, put forward in everything from Nightbreed to X-Men via The Lost Boys and Near Dark, is central to this take.
Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell, from the Escape Room films) is a wrong-side-of-the-tracks teenager but popular in her school band role – one night, she defies her strict tract home dad (André Holland) and sneaks out for a sleepover with her best friend. A dreamy make-up and gossip and lounging in PJs session hints at one reason why Dad wants Maren at home under lock and key, but a sudden twist – as Maren bites her friend’s finger – reveals that it’s another basic urge which means upping sticks and running every so often, and that the innocent girl started a body count with a baby-sitter when she was an infant. Dad decamps, leaving some money, her birth certificate and a cassette of handy explanation, and Maren has to fend for herself, while setting out on a road trip to track down her long-missing, mysterious Mom (Chloë Sevigny). The first fellow eater she runs into is Sully (Mark Rylance), a whispery human jackal who closes in on dying folks and consumes them, knotting their hair into a braid he keeps in a satchel as a memento of all his victims. He proposes a hook-up but Maren is properly spooked by his reasonable creepiness and moves on … only to encounter Lee (Chalamet) in a supermarket, and find him a much more suitable hunting partner, not a controlling mentor but another questioning soul and not yet completely estranged from his human connections (he has a sister).
The search for Mom is a plot thread – first it leads to an adoptive grandmother played splendidly by Jessica Harper, from the first Suspiria – but like many road movies, it’s an absurd, disappointing quest and the point is ‘the friends we meet along the way’. Actually, I don’t think the central couple quite work on screen – they’re apart too long and their connection doesn’t quite resonate. We get a bit of backstory for them both but nothing that’s discovered really fills in anything – without the gut-munching, it’s a movie about kids who hook up on the road and that’s about it. Guaganino isn’t the type to go for anything as commonplace as a jump scare and he often seems to want to be weird rather than involving, but Bones and All has its strange, unsettling patches – Rylance’s Sully is bad enough but there’s also a teaming of Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Brad (David Gordon Green), greasier eaters who approach the kids with menaces for a barbecue that delivers conceptual horror rather than grue, as eater Jake reveals that his partner, a police officer, is not really one of them but a regular person who’s got into cannibalism for cruel kicks. That psychic element plays out strangely too – at some points, Maren has blood-induced flashes of dooms that are coming down the road and we see in effect a trailer for an alternate rest of the film which is equally downbeat and horrific but not the road we actually take.