Friday Film: Bones and all – LFF 2022

I first saw this film at the Venice film festival but it’s screening at LFF too.

Bones and all is a film about cannibals. Not cannibals in some far away land. Not cannibals living centuries ago. Not cannibals in some wacky comedy.  Not cannibals in some Indiana Jones type adventure movie. Not muzzled cannibals in a maximum security prison a la Hannibal Lecter. No, it’s about people living in modern America who kill and eat other people. The clue is in the title. The ultimate desire of these ‘eaters’ is to eat another human ‘bones and all’.

I mention this at the outset because the film is being sold to the public as a coming of age love story between ‘outsiders’. Anyone who doesn’t see the charm and innocence of the central story will magnanimously be dismissed as the kind of person who shouts ‘turn that racket down’ at the sound of cool new music ie not to be taken seriously, maybe even pitied. 

But it’s ok to question the purpose of this film. Is it to portray cannibals as misunderstood members of society who deserve to be understood? Is it to normalise cannibalism? Is it to shock? Is it to use a savage, brutal practice to tell an otherwise mundane story? Is it because in a ‘everything should be accepted/anything goes’ culture there are so few taboos left that filmmakers have to be ever more outlandish to make a point? Is the cannibalism just mischievous symbolism for good old fashioned rebelliousness? Is it because Luca Guadagino’s films are, whisper it, hype over substance?

Whatever the thinking behind the subject matter it’s only honest to point it out early in a review because the promotion for the film seems to seek to hide what it’s about. It talks, instead, of a young woman on the ‘margins of society’ who meets a ‘disenfranchised drifter’, falls in love with him and together they embark on a journey. That’s not a strictly untrue summary but neither is it the whole truth.

So, having established the film is about people who kill and eat people, the story goes something like this.

Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) lives with her father (Andre Holland) in a modest, temporary home that they are, at all times, prepared to abandon at short notice to move on to the next place when the neighbours learn of Marlen’s taste for human flesh. They’ve lived like this for years. When Marlen bites off the finger of a high school friend during a sleepover, father and daughter have to flee again, much to the despair of the former. 

However, constantly being on the run like this eventually wears her father out and he disappears, leaving Marlen to fend for herself when she reaches 18. 

She then sets off to find the mother she hasn’t ever known and who might hold the key to discovering why she (Marlen) is the way she is.

At the start of her journey Marlen meets Sully (Mark Rylance) a pigtailed old ‘eater’ who smells her as a fellow eater from a distance. He invites her into his home.

Sully ate his last girlfriend, keeps the hair of his victims in an ever lengthening braid and has an annoying tendency to speak of himself in the third person. Around Marlen he veers between wise mentor, advising her to chomp down on a victim and creepy predator. It’s not clear whether his interest in her is sexual, familial, Svengalian or plain loneliness but it’s oppressive. Marlen soon escapes him and goes on her way alone. She eventually meets up with Lee (Timothee Chalamet), all cheekbones, bare chest and multi-coloured hair. Lee is also an eater. One who wants to go all the way and eat someone ’bones and all.’

The two quickly become an item and set off together to find her mother and escape his.

From then on the film goes down a pretty well trodden path of childhood abuse, family conflicts, young love and a search for identity and a place in the world.

The three central performances are all strong. Rylance is suitably weird and creepy while also believably pathetic and vulnerable. Chalamet is the compelling screen presence. But despite his star power he doesn’t appear for a good 20 minutes at the start of the film and later disappears too for short periods. This is essentially Russell’s film and her story and she holds both together impressively. 

Ultimately though, the film isn’t romantic enough to work as a love story. It’s not gory enough to work as horror. And it’s not clever enough to work as a provocative piece of art.