‘Bones and All’ Finds Cannibal Romance in an Elegiac American Road Trip

Outsiders attract and form a strong, romantic bond in “Bones and All,” but not in the way that we are used to. This new drama by Luca Guadagnino, the Italian auteur whose next move is always hard to guess, challenges our very notion of genre and movie romance. He is daring you to root for two cannibals who hit the road together, need to feast on the human flesh but have an undeniable, endearing chemistry. It’s a stark way of embodying why certain people need each other. Finding that special person who connects with you because you’re both different is a powerful idea, even when your outlier status is because of what you eat. If this were the 1960s, stars Timothée Chalamet and Taylor Russell would become instant icons out of a French New Wave film.

Set in the 1980s, the story first introduces Maren (Russell), who discovers her particular wiring for sustenance during a sleepover when she devours a friend’s finger. The incident prompts her father to panic and make the decision to leave the 18-year-old behind with money and an audio cassette explaining her situation. Maren discovers that she has inherited her “eater” genes from mom, inspiring the teen to go find her. Determined, Maren hops on a bus and starts a journey through Middle America. Before long, Maren meets another eater, the older Sully (Mark Rylance), an eerie sort who gives her tips on survival methods. He also keeps mementos from his victims in the form of hair turned into one long braid. Soon enough she meets Lee (Chalamet), who works at a convenience store and reveals he is also an eater. They embark on the road together, aiming to complete Maret’s journey to her mother while falling in love, facing danger and satisfying their appetite.

“Bones and All” sounds on paper like a horror film, but Guadagnino is subverting genres here. He is adapting a Camille DeAngelis novel from 2015 aimed at the YA market, restructured into something more mature. There are indeed moments of gruesome intensity, which are fleeting. Instead, this is meant to be one of those romances like Terrence Malick’s “Badlands,” where Middle America and its isolated corners and vast landscapes take on a poetic grittiness. Guadagnino can evoke dread while also allowing a sunset or twilight frame the two young lovers as they smoke, converse about life or hold each other. They are young and feeling powerful emotions, while defying the world with their very identities. The music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is one of their more tender works, even as it remains laced with some of the moodier, signature atmosphere they have become known for. The story spans multiple states including Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and Kentucky. Guadagnino captures each setting with great detail but also a sense of loneliness, as if Maren and Lee only have each other in this wide country. In the shadows someone like Sully might be hiding, like a threat masking itself in friendliness.

On a deeper level, “Bones and All” is an update on a genre that used to be a metaphor for political and social idealism, if not rebellion. Jean-Luc Godard would have had these kids quoting radical thinkers or road tripping to Nicaragua. Guadagnino and cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan richly evoke the period, but now cannibalism is a stand-in for more recognizable forms of subversion. There’s almost an affinity here with the 1980s Punk films of Alex Cox. Chalamet in particular looks like he could have been cast in “Sid & Nancy.” The darker theme here however, is that in one sense, Maren and Lee are monsters. To survive, Lee seduces a guy at a carnival and lures him into a field to slit his throat so he and Maren can eat. It’s not a practice by choice of course. Fate has cursed them, and now they have found love despite it. When Maren does find her mother it becomes a series of heartbreaking revelations. In this world, the rebels tend to be alone, until they find kindred spirits.

“Bones and All” brings together familiar elements of Guadagnino’s previous work without the director repeating himself. He made 2017’s breezy gay romance “Call Me by Your Name” and 2018’s divisive “Suspiria” remake, where he reimagined Dario Argento’s colorful horror opus as a cold, stark meditation on terrors both supernatural and historical in 1970s West Berlin. This movie has the evocative emotions of the first and the dread of the second. The ending is a bold, bloody expression of what becoming one with your lover can mean when you’re both “eaters.” What makes it work convincingly well is how Chalamet and Russell have both charisma and a down-to-earth style onscreen. We root for them because they look and act great together, creating the feeling of two young people forming their own, safe bubble, until it can be burst by outside threats. Guadagnino films them as not clueless teens, but as curious youths with eloquent dreams and quiet passions. This is a genuinely romantic film, even as it serves horrifying courses in some of its frames.

Bones and All” releases Nov. 18 in select theaters.