While Luca Guadagnino has made films with more overtly queer content, Bones and All may be his queerest in spirit – or the richest, so far, in its queerest. In many ways, it plays as a spiritual sequel to Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, most particularly in its vision of queerness as a series of dislocations in time and space as it ripples across the American heartland. There is, however, a quite distinct ingredient from Van Sant’s vision – cannibalism. Taylor Russell plays Maren Yearly, a teenager who has had cannibal cravings for as long as she can remember. Cannibalism here is akin to a sexual orientation, emerging as a hesitant, curious, tentative predilection (making the violence all the more visceral) and propelling Maren to seek her kind after her father abandons her in the opening scenes. Or perhaps that’s not quite accurate, since Maren isn’t even aware that her kind exists, until she hits the road, and discovers a loose fraternity of other cannibals – first, through Sully, a middle-aged cannibal played by Mark Rylance, and then through Lee, a cannibal her own age, played by Timothee Chalamet, who becomes her companion, her confidant and eventually her lover.
Most of Bones and All takes place on the road, and is suffused with the hush of a pre-liberated homosexual wandering in American culture. I didn’t live through the sixties and seventies, but in my mind I associate this period with a peculiarly pregnant quietness. By mid-century, homosexuality was well known in public discourse, and by the eighties, distinct gay identities had emerged. Yet texts written in the interim exude the sense of invisibility that comes when visibility is on the distant horizon, the possibility of gay liberation at the very fringes of a broader sexual liberation. Bones and All seems to belong to this moment, and reminded me of John Rechy’s 1963 novel City of Night in particular, which details a young gay man making his way across the American heartland in search of a solace he has to keep reinventing as he goes. Like those early gay pioneers, Maren is uncertain of how far the cannibal lifestyle extends, as is Sully, the most experienced cannibal in the film. When she asks him, “are there a lot of us?,” he replies, “not a lot, but more than you might think,” unable to commit to much beyond that. Like the closeted identities of the sixties and seventies (or the gay people who came of age right as the closet was being cemented as a trope in American culture), Maren feels a compulsion to keep moving above all else, either living by night, or hiding in plain sight.
As the film proceeds, Guadagnino gradually and tactitly indicates that we are in the 80s, but this is a cumulative 80s, the product of decades of wandering in American culture. At times, Maren recalls the peripatetic voyagers of New Hollywood; at other times, she evokes the Great Depression as a rambling milieu that was still just in living memory by the time gay people came of age in the liberation era. Unlike many texts from this period, however, Bones and All doesn’t seek solace in cities, or imagine urban life as the goal of queer identity. Instead, Guadganino offers something closer to queer regionalism, or even what Scott Herring has called queer anti-urbanism, often recalling Sean Baker’s relocation of queerness to the broader American exurban sprawl. Still, Bones and All isn’t even exactly exurban, instead focusing its attention on the most hushed streets of the heartland, the deepest desuetudes of roadside life, the places you glimpse from all-night Greyhound rides, curated in the badges, trinkets and marginalia with which Sully decorates his ancient suit, in a testament to his decades of travelling across and down the forgotten highways and byways of middle America. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross capture these spaces in a pizzicato score that suspends us in the vacancies between notes, like a half-remembered song that refuses to ever quite congeal.
Cannibalism, like homosexuality for most of the twentieth-century, is also a lifestyle that prevents the characters from settling anywhere for too long, at least in a conventional way, since every form of permanent living seems to be set against them. We see the last vestiges of private space dissolve in the opening scenes, as Maren sets out from her father’s caravan, and climbs a windy hill flanked by power lines to the house of a friend, where she reveals her cannibalism, and has to flee the town as a result. This is also the point where her father abandons her, as caravan and house both collapse into the wind in the wires between them, paving the way for a film that takes place against the residues, traces and stains of bourgeois interiority. During the first act, Maren and Sully tend to camp out in the houses of their victims, who are normally dead or dying when they come upon them. When Maren meets Lee, she feels a little more housed, but even so she never owns a house, or lives in a house. She spends a couple of days in his aunt’s house when they return to his home town, but it’s as haunted by its former owner as the earlier residences in the film, while we never see Lee living anywhere in his home town apart from a tent he erects in a small encampment by a lake. Insofar as Maren’s wanderings have a destination, it’s the home of her mother Janelle, played by Chloe Sevigny, but this fantasy also dissipates the moment that she encounters it.
While cannibalism feels like a cipher for an older era of homosexuality in American culture, it also feels very directed at the present – specifically, at the desire-less world of Marvel, and the broader cinematic culture that it has produced. Watching George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing clarified, for me, that the MCU is fundamentally fearful of desire, for several reasons – because it is messy, because it is insatiable, and because it is often (perhaps inherently) anarchic, all of which mitigates against the cynical and corporate pseudo-wokeness that Marvel has made its own. In response, we have seen a wave of films and television series, such as The White Lotus and Triangle of Sadness, that focus on the volatility of desire. So it is with Bones and All, which celebrates ungainly and awkward desire, contorted compulsions that can’t be contained, like Armie Hammer’s dance moves in Call Me By Your Name. It’s not a dissimilar impulse to Terence Malick’s Badlands, which Bones and All often recalls, and which gathered the radical pleasure-principle of the counter-culture into a killing spree so senseless and yet so libidinal that it resisted even the most strenuous sanitisation.
Just as important, Bones and All traffics in desire that complicates a certain kind of airbrushed identity politics that has dominated social media and cinematic franchise-building in recent years. Not all the cannibals in Guadagnino’s film are benign to each other, and not all the people they target are unsympathetic. They’re not above targeting people who are as marginal as they are either, as we see in the centrepiece of the screenplay, a scene in which Lee picks up a gay man at a travelling fair, has sex with him in a cornfield, and then kills and eats him. This scene goes through several modulations, all of which are inflected through Maren’s perspective, itself suffused with the mystic Midwestern winds of the 80s. When Lee meets this man, it’s hard to tell if he’s cruising him as a cannibal or as a gay man, an ambiguity that continues into the sex act itself. Initially, it seems like the other man is oblivious to Lee’s cannibal desires, and assumes he is only biting his neck for some additional frisson. Then, the scene shifts, and it feels like both men are engaged in some unspoken gay cannibal sex act, a mutual biting that edges them as close to death as possible. Finally, and abruptly, Lee cuts the man’s throat, and starts consuming his body, although even now it’s unclear whether his victim was also a cannibal who just happened to fall victim to another cannibal’s errant desire.
In other words, there is no coherent intersection between the queerness of cannibalism and the queerness of male-male sex here. Instead, we have two types of desire, cannibal and same-sex, both on the margins, and encountering each other on the margins, but remaining somewhat incommensurate until the last, as Guadagnino evokes a desire too vivid and volatile to be easily shoehorned into the bland intersectional alliances that have been so cynically deployed by the Marvel machine. This incommensurability continues across cannibal generations and subcultures too, as Maren quickly learns that she can’t necessarily trust fellow cannibals, partly because the norms of the cannibal world are not even vaguely stabilised or accepted yet – indeed, the cannibal “world” has barely conceived itself as such. As a result, cannibal desire radically denatures the very idea of home, and of reproductive futurity – from Lee’s father, who tried to eat him, to Maren’s father, who leaves her at the beginning, to Maren’s mother, who she discovers housed in an insane asylum, having bit off her own hands, an inchoate effort to repress the cannibal future that brought Maren to her.
More generally, Guadagnino evokes a desire that doesn’t have any space or place to call its own, even or especially within the corporate intersectionality of Marvel-mainstream cinema. Accordingly, Maren and Lee seek out a non-place, the most placeless place they can find – the great plains of Nebraska. There, against a landscape devoid of virtually all discernible contours, Lee confesses his deepest shame, and his most lasting transgression – that he retaliated against his father by eating him alive. With reproductive futurity completely quelled by that shocking tableau, Maren and Lee join hands, in the defining image of the film, and share their most passionate embrace in the space most resistant to home – a kiss ravenous to accept and embrace even the messiest vestiges of their cannibal desire. She asks, “where do we go” and they decide to just drive to the end of the road, in the hopes that it will take this vast vacancy to its apotheosis and limit. All of a sudden, we cut to the two of them living a “normal” life as a couple in Ann Arbor, in an extraordinarily plangent sequence that reminded me of Michel Foucault’s tribute to the imaginative leap needed for two men to live together domestically: “How is it possible for men to be together? To live together, to share their time, their meals, their room, their leisure, their grief, their knowledge, their confidences…outside of institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie? It’s a desire, uneasiness, desire-in-uneasiness that exists among lots of people.”
This home lasts the length of a single montage sequence, as if Maren and Lee have imagined it straight out of the plains of the Midwest, dreamed up place itself from placelessness, before it is disrupted – not by an outsider, or a victim, but by the inherent unruliness of cannibal desire itself, which re-emerges in the form of Sully, Lee’s apparent mentor, who turns against her, and violates his own deepest code by attacking and attempting to eat another cannibal. Right when cannibal desire seems stabilised, alterity and anarchy surges up from within, like a gay orgy held on the eve of marriage equality, in both a complement and counterpart to the scene between Lee and the gay man. There, people from two marginal identity groups converged without commensurability; here, two people from the same marginal identity group do the same. As in so much of Bones and All, Guadagnino captures the feeling of AIDS, as members of the same community try to stay close but in doing so cause harm to themselves and to others in unforeseen ways. It took me back to an idea that was still inchoately present in my own childhood, but has largely vanished from public discourse – that gay intercourse was simply a way of doing harm to another body, and to one’s own body too.
To his credit, Guadagnino doesn’t exactly reject this proposition, since to reject it would be to revalidate it, but instead folds it back into his testament to the inherent messiness – that is, queerness – of desire itself. Right when desire is domesticated, it takes Maren and Lee to the next level in anarchy and volatility, as Lee, fatally wounded, begs Maren to eat him, and to thus violate every part of the loose cannibal ethos she has built over the course of the film. For the first time, she eats another cannibal, she eats someone alive, she eats someone in their entirety, bones and all – and, for the first and last time, she eats the love of her life. This is desire so pronounced that it ultimately absorbs its object, much as the road trips of the 70s that Guadagnino channels displaced their destination as they proceeded. At the very moment at which Maren unleashes the volatility of her desire, though, she loves Lee the most vividly, affirming home precisely when home seems most impossible, even as a fantasy. Reznor and Ross’ final song now bursts into a refrain – “for a minute, just a minute, you made it feel like home” – and then elides the last “home” as we cut back to Maren and Lee gazing out over the Nebraska plains. It’s every bit as plaintive as “Visions of Gideon,” at the end of Call Me By Your Name, and perhaps even more so, as Guadgnino sticks doggedly to the dream of home, even or especially as the dream itself is untenable and incomplete. And that makes Bones and All a remarkably resonant exercise in what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called reparative reading: extracting sustenance, even cannibal sustenance, from a world determined not to sustain.