“Soft bones,” Timothée Chalamet tweeted when Bones and All trailer first premiered. He followed it up with a second, sharply contrasting image: “Crunchy bones.” Having disoriented us, next, he serves a killer curveball: “Boney bones.” He’d given us a lot to think about, but Chalamet was unsatisfied at leaving the matter so plainly unresolved, finishing with “Boner bone.” Ever the provocateur.
With commentary like this, some will wonder how necessary external criticism is for Luca Guadagnino’s cannibal road-trip film Bones and All. But apart from explaining to confounded audiences why a cannibal drifter is, actually, the perfect role for Hollywood’s Sleepy Skinny Boy de jour, Bones and All can be contextualized with a wealth of similarly off-kilter, unsettling films that blend earnest romance and gruesome violence.
In the cinema of the Horror Outcast, we see cannibals, vampires and psychopaths are expelled from regular human society, and despite the overpowering thrills they get from eating flesh, drinking blood and taking lives, they’re all characterized by an inarticulable desire to exist in a world where they’re recognized, accepted and even validated. These feelings are internalized, channeled into bloody frustrations and existential reflections. As Guadagnino says, these are films that ask, “What is left when we don’t exist anymore?” More than that, these films ask at what stage of inhuman transformation do we stop existing, even if we keep living?
Bones and All doesn’t solely originate from this unofficial cinematic canon. Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich adapted the 2015 young adult novel by Camille DeAngelis, and like Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria before it, Guadagnino takes liberties with his source material. The YA themes and structure still linger, resulting in a tension between the ardent romance of teenage “eaters” Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet), and the upsetting emotional whiplash felt from their violence. This dual narrative is what defines the Horror Outcast subgenre; there is always an alternative perspective with which horror is interpreted, one defined by distinct narratological, religious or societal factors, complicating easy readings of horrific actions.
Take Terrence Malick’s landmark debut Badlands. Kit (Martin Sheen) is a garbage collector and unfeeling barbarian, who implicates his 15-year-old partner Holly (Sissy Spacek) in a string of murders across the American frontier. We understand how deadening Holly’s home life in South Dakota is, and her controlling father feels like a blueprint to Maren’s father in Bones and All’s opening scenes. Both young girls have constraints imposed on them to keep them away from fun, excitement and company, but both quickly subvert the romance of “run-away-with-me” tropes, as it’s revealed Maren’s father is more worried about protecting everyone else from his daughter, and Kit solves the problem of Holly’s father by shooting him dead.
With its undercurrent of dreary realism, Badlands serves as a counterpoint to the Bonnie and Clyde archetype of American infamy. Why Kit kills with such abandon is less interesting than the ways he and Holly negotiate their own system of ethics to avoid considering themselves monsters. Their fabricated impunity mirrors that of Maren and Lee, who want to enjoy the thrills of violence while avoiding the weight of morality, often committing to more violence with flimsy justifications: They’ve gone too far to turn back now; they need to cover their own tracks. You can’t set yourselves apart from the rules and conventions of society and then lament that you have no place in it.
Of course, Maren and Lee’s violence isn’t entirely committed by choice—their physiology compels them to consume human flesh no matter how hard they resist. Park Chan-wook’s vampire tale Thirst is especially relevant here: A priest, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), becomes infected with vampirism, driving him from God’s light into the shadows of urban Korea. Song is an incredible performer, but Thirst, in all its gasping breaths and wet sounds, belongs to Kim Ok-bin, who plays a housewife, Tae-ju, who’s trapped in a loveless marriage under a punishing mother-in-law.
Kim was some 20 years younger than Song at the time of filming, and her electric performance of someone tasting and eventually seizing freedom from crushing family dynamics only highlights how important horror was to her liberation. After Sang-hyun turns her into a vampire, the abandon with which she bounds across rooftops is a stark contrast to the shame and guilt of Sang-hyun’s orthodoxy. Thirst shares Bones and All’s breathless intoxication with the horrific, arguing if one needs to indulge in gruesome urges, they can never be considered truly selfish or monstrous, before forcing them to reorient themselves with reality. Becoming a Horror Outcast feels like nothing else, but once you’ve tasted it, it stains you forever.
Few films imagine outcasts in larger numbers than two, making Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark even more of an oddity. While it differs from Bones and All in a wooden, unconvincing central romance, the vampire drifter film (released a few months after The Lost Boys) feels both romantic in its portrayal of nomadic supernatural creatures and unforgivingly realistic in the social and psychological exile such beings would receive. Even though our young protagonists have only recently turned, the other gang members (disproportionately made up of Aliens cast members) have already made their peace with the malaise and disillusionment that comes with eternal life, which makes them only more willing to commit horrible acts of violence.
It’s telling that the strongest community of any horror outcasts is the one that demands entrees to conform to nihilistic barbarism in order to feel accepted. Near Dark’s vampire performances all err on the right side of unhinged (as was the ‘80s fashion), but they’re all as dangerous and unstable as the distinctly off-putting “eaters” (played with delectable menace by Mark Rylance and Michael Stuhlbarg) Maren and Lee come across on their own voyage across Reagan’s America. The cannibal lovers recognize that, despite their shared appetites, community shouldn’t always be readily accepted-Near Dark demonstrates how corruptive the values of other outcasts can be on fresh exiles.
All these films explore life once our outcasts have crossed the threshold into violence, but Bones and All shares with films like Martin and Raw the stomach-turning notion that horror was always inside us, a hereditary germination to which we are helpless. With backdrops of downtrodden Pittsburgh and a French veterinary school, Martin and Raw have their young protagonists slowly confront the idea impressed on them by family—they a horrific Other. Martin’s elderly cousin berates him about his inheritance of a familial vampire’s curse, something Martin dismisses as unreal “magic,” despite clear signs he’s internalized it, thanks to his bursts of sexually-motivated murder, sexual assault and blood-drinking.
Raw offers a more sympathetic character in Justine, who must contend with the legacy of her sister at school and as a cannibal. How much of Justine and Martin’s violence is out of their control, and to what extent is that a narrative they tell themselves to justify darker urges? Martin counters the extravagance of vampire stories by reimagining mundane scenes with black-and-white romanticizations that help to distance Martin from the ugly reality of his actions, whereas its moments of intimacy—aiding a friend’s bikini wax or first hook-ups—that trigger Justine’s dark urges.
In both films, the characters resist the idea that genealogy alone defines their behavior, so personal and consuming are their brutal impulses. It also provokes an adolescent frustration against authority—if people knew, why was it kept secret? It’s reflected in Maren’s reunion with her mother in a psychiatric hospital, a reminder that despite the identity she’s forged by herself, she may have been fated to inescapable alienation. In the final stretches of all three films comes a depressing realization: If our horror is hereditary, we may have to—like those before us—resign ourselves to never truly belonging.
What happens when a human being is corrupted and redefined by something horrific, but they still possess self-awareness? If there still exists the capacity for empathy, reflection and ethics, can they be considered inhuman, and more importantly, how do they view themselves? Bones and All enters a canon of films that intersect genre fiction with psychology, romance with brutality, and offer charged, complex characters that cannot be simply explained or resolved. These films filled with yearnings for connection form a community with each other, each claiming that there is a place for the outcast out there in the endless, but we can only reach it by confronting and accepting something dark about ourselves.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.