In vampire movies, from “Nosferatu” to the “Twilight” films to “Only Lovers Left Alive,” bloodsucking is usually more than just bloodsucking — it’s about sex, addiction, power — and that’s why the main event in a vampire movie doesn’t have to be the literal spectacle of watching fangs tear into human flesh. The elegance of the genre is that it has a built-in metaphorical sweep. “Bones and All,” Luca Guadagnino’s YA road movie about a couple of lost souls who happen to be cannibals (it’s adapted from the novel by Camille DeAngelis), is a film in which the characters behave very much like vampires. They blend into society, but they’re really a breed apart, with the ability to smell fresh meat (and one another) and a consuming desire to “feed.”
In this case, though, the feedings aren’t sleekly suggestive the way they are in a vampire film. We see the characters ripping into bodies and munching away, the flesh coming off in chunks, the blood splattering everywhere. When they’re done with a meal, it will look like a serial killer was there. If that sounds a touch grotesque, it is; I found the scenes garish and unpleasant. Yet the ultimate reason they’re no fun to sit through is that cannibalism, in this movie, has no higher (or lower) meaning, no import beyond itself. It doesn’t signify anything … at all. The characters may, for a few moments, act like flesh-hungry zombies, but they’re not zombies. They’re meant to be sexy and sympathetic and relatable. How does watching them eat other people fit into that? Beats me.
It may sound like “Bones and All” is some sort of horror fantasia, and when the movie is released, by MGM, on Thanksgiving weekend (which is either a very canny piece of counterprogramming or some marketing executive’s idea of a bad joke), the best chance it will stand at the box office is probably if it’s sold as a horror film. Yet however it winds up being marketed, what audiences are going to discover is that “Bones and All,” for all its Guignol showiness, is one of the sketchiest, emptiest, most meandering road movies in memory. The film is two hours and 10 minutes long, and despite the period hook of its 1988 setting, almost nothing of interest happens in it. It sprawls all over the U.S., and the images have a travelogue sensuality, but “Bones and All” is a concept in search of a story. The film doesn’t draw us in. It stumbles and lurches and seems to make itself up as it goes along. You may feel eaten alive with boredom.
Taylor Russell, an expressively melancholy actor who was one of the stars of “Waves,” plays Maren, who is 18, and who we meet while she’s still living with her dad (André Holland) in a trailer home, trying to fit in as a recently transplanted high-school student. She sneaks out to attend a sleepover, the main event of which is trying on different colors of nail polish. That seems to go well until Maren grabs the finger of one of her classmates and proceeds to chomp right through it, leaving the digit barely dangling from its hand.
When she gets home, her father springs into damage-control mode, trying to hustle them away before the police come. But he has had enough. Maren soon finds herself abandoned, with a cassette tape from dad explaining who, exactly, she is and why he can no longer stick around trying to protect her from herself.
Out on her own, Maren encounters another cannibal, a gothic eccentric named Sully, played by Mark Rylance (in the film’s grabbiest performance), who wears a hat with a feather and a long braided ponytail and speaks in a delicate Deep South drawl. Sully tells Maren that he can smell her; that’s how he knows she’s part of the cannibal tribe. And he wastes no time leading her to feast, in a scene of upstairs mayhem that looks like it would get four stars from Charles Manson. After decades of reviewing over-the-top horror, I realize I’m suddenly sounding very moralistic about the gore in “Bones and All,” but it’s only because I kept asking myself, What’s the point? The movie isn’t out to scare us. And since the characters themselves don’t experience their cannibalism as gross (the title describes the ultimate level of cannibalism: eating it all, including the bones), the fact that we in the audience do doesn’t exactly invite us to identify with them. The problem with these scenes is that we’re on the outside looking in.
Maren is laying low in a supermarket when she draws the gaze of Lee (Timothée Chalamet), who turns out to be a chivalrous soul, not to mention the most hiply dressed cannibal in the history of civilization. Before this week, Maren had never met another cannibal; now, just like that, she has met two of them (with more to come). If that sounds a bit unlikely, the upshot is that the script of “Bones and All,” by David Kajganich (who co-wrote Gaudignino’s “Suspiria” and “A Bigger Splash”), isn’t big on logic or consistency. It’s a catch-as-catch-can screenplay that has resulted in a haphazard ramble of a movie.
Chalamet does a sweet job of dancing in a bedroom to “Lick It Up” by Kiss — he’s like a bopping scarecrow — and he coasts along on his shaggy debonair youthquake charisma. But in this case there’s a danger to that; his performance winds up stuck between sincerity and pose. This marks the first time that Chalamet’s postmodern clothes-horse persona, always so riveting on red carpets, defines the character he’s playing more than anything else he does. His hair is cut into a mullet, with copper-orange streaks, and with his brimmed fedora, white necklace, patterned shirts worn unbuttoned, ear pierced in the middle (totally anachronistic for the era), and the pièce de résistance — a pair of jeans with holes in the knees so large that there’s more hole than jean — he’s certainly playing a new screen type: the too-grunge-for-school neo-James Dean flesh-muncher as fashionista.
Maren and Lee fall in love (sort of), but mostly she’s searching for her backstory. She wants to find her mother, and does, learning that she was a cannibal, too. But even with the formidable Chloë Sevigny playing the mom as a mental patient who ate her own hands, the encounter doesn’t come to much. Some other good actors turn up: Michael Stulhbarg, cast against type as a grinning hick in overalls, and Jessica Harper, tersely compelling as Maren’s adoptive grandmother. And then they’re gone. There’s also a strange encounter between Lee and the circus worker he arranges to meet near a cornfield. The victim thinks it’s a hookup — and, in fact, there’s an extended shot in which we see Lee pleasuring his victim before eating him. But since that’s the only sex scene in the film, we wonder: Why is he doing this? Does Maren consider it a betrayal? (Note to screenwriter: We could have used an actual line of dialogue there.)
Maren and Lee drift from state to state, and the way Guadagnino flashes each location onscreen in oversize letters — Virginia! Kentucky! — it’s as if he were advancing the plot by telling us where we are. But sorry, there is no plot. Did the artful filmmaker of “Call Me by Your Name” really think there was? In “Bones and All,” there is only the morose samey-sameness of cool doomed attitude.