The modern cannibal is usually hard to identify. Jeffrey Dahmer was the all-American boy next door. Armin Meiwes used to mow his neighbours’ lawns to be helpful. Issei Sagawa was so small and helpless that he seemed vulnerable rather than threatening. Albert Fish was a sweet old man, so charming that the Budd’s let him take their little girl to a party.
They were normal, everyday people, a bit weird, but not monsters.
At least, not in appearance. This is a recent phenomenon – the original cannibals were called anthropophagi (Greek for man-eaters) and were humanoid in shape, but were usually some sort of hybrid – a mix of humans and gods or other animals – strong, ferocious, and clearly not quite human. From the 15th century, the alleged cannibals found by Columbus and other explorers were different in culture and skin colouring, so were easily distinguished, defamed and exterminated. It is only recently, since Jack the Ripper in 1888, that the cannibal walked among us, undetected until the victims were found (or what was left of them).
Bones and All presents as a coming of age cannibal romance, taking a sharp turn back into cannibal history for its themes. Maren (Taylor Russell from Lost in Space) is finishing high school, a spectacular end of term in which she is invited to her friend’s sleepover and bites a girl’s finger off, instead of, you know, just admiring the nail polish, as she had been invited to do.
She then goes on the run with her father, who has been keeping her ahead of the law as she grew up (her first human meat was her babysitter when she was three) but now ditches her, with a few hundred dollars and a birth certificate.
It then becomes a road movie, as she travels through the American Mid-West trying to find her mother, attracting suspicion not because of her eating habits but just because she looks too young to be on the road. She comes across another cannibal (they are called “eaters”) in the shape of a weird old man named Sully (Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies) before meeting up with Lee, played by the love interest of seemingly everyone nowadays, Timothée Chalamet. Chalamet appeared in the third instalment of Guadagnino’s “Desire Trilogy”, Call Me by Your Name), in which he was the love interest of Oliver, played by Armie Hammer, who has recently been generating his own cannibalism headlines.
As a road movie it’s Thelma and Louise mixed with Romeo and Juliet, if they had been cannibals. In other words outsiders, star-crossed lovers, and lots of flesh being torn off dead (and sometimes living) bodies. Road movies rely on meeting new and weird people, and learning about the protagonists (and ourselves) from their stories.
Sully is a lonely old man who teaches Maren about being an eater, and how an eater has a super-power – like a vampire, they have a nose that can smell other eaters at great distances, and can also smell dying people, which allows him to feast on them fairly inculpably, although Maren rather wonders if they should be calling 911 rather than letting them gasp their last breaths. So they are anthropophagi, they smell different, have a strong sense of smell, and so are not quite human. We subsequently discover that the cannibal gene is passed on – Lee’s dad and Maren’s mother were also eaters. They are a breed apart, hybrid humans, who can mate with non-eaters.
They are also presented as ‘savages’ – related to the colonised peoples who were declared cannibal by the imperial powers. Maren is biracial, and Sully (although played by a classical British Shakespearean actor) seems to be presented as a Native American, with a long ponytail and a feather in his hat. The marginalised and disenfranchised are regularly presented as dangerous, thieves, murders, cannibals, regardless of any evidence.
An interesting character from colonial times is the wendigo, a figure from Algonquin mythology who eats his fellow humans and draws on their strength to grow huge and powerful, which only makes him hungrier and deadlier. Sully tells Maren that her fate is to need more and more flesh as she gets older.
Just like the wendigo, who is an indigenous version of the anthropophagus, and one that was used by the victims to characterise the European invaders and their voracious appetite for land and gold. The phrase “bones and all” reminds us of the colonial greed that denied the humanity of those invaded and insisted on taking everything, leaving nothing and nowhere to go but a few reservations or missions in remote, unprofitable areas. Eating bones and all is also a perfect way of getting rid of the evidence.
The title Bones and All is taken from the book of the same name by Camille DeAngelis, but the phrase was not used in the book – it just meant that Maren and the other eaters would automatically eat the whole person, bones and all. Except for her first, the babysitter, because she was too small to swallow bones – she left a pile of them, a pool of blood, and the hammer from an eardrum. In a movie, though, it can be harder for the viewer to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief, so eating the victim bones and all becomes a rite of passage – the next level of being an eater. Maren and Lee don’t know how to eat a person bones and all, so they are not yet postgrad eaters. Maren puts it succinctly – “that’s impossible.” But what about eating the flesh? Armin Meiwes took ten months to eat 20 kilograms (44 lb) of Brandes, but we are asked to accept that Maren and Lee can eat a whole body in a night.
But then, everything is ambiguous in this story, which has been widely described as a metaphor for otherness and queerness. The story is set in 1981, as Ronald Reagan is entering the White House. Being different, queer, compassionate, seeking social justice were all considered laughable or dangerous. Greed was good, and so eating a victim bones and all might have seemed laudable. Drug addiction was escalating, and some have seen the cannibalism in this film as a metaphor for this as well – Maren and Lee can’t go too long without their feed, and will do whatever they need to in order to get it.
Some of the ambiguities are more subtle: Maren looks young, which bothers various people she deals with, although she is 18 and technically an adult in most places. Lee falls in love with her, but is also capable of appearing to be cruising for gay sex.
He chooses a carnival worker who has been mean to a child, leads him into the bushes and masturbates him, slitting the man’s throat as he orgasms. It was not until twenty years later that gay sex was legalised in the US, and this man’s secret desire for same sex petite mort becomes his real mort. They then discover that the man had a wife and family, and are stricken with guilt, because apparently eating some people is OK, but not family people.
Then we have the eaters – Maren is naïve and caring, horrified by her need to feed. Lee is a puny dude who kills seemingly effortlessly, but like Hannibal Lecter, Lee prefers to eat rude people – when we first meet him, he challenges a rude person in a supermarket and leads him to a deserted shed where he kills and eats him. Sully is an senior eater, so has to eat regularly, but says he tries not to kill people – sniffs out those who are dying, but later he gets violent when Maren rejects his advances.
Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an eater who has graduated to eating bones and all, but he is accompanied by a friend named Brad (David Gordon Green), a cop (!), who is not a natural eater, but just likes doing it. Maren accepts that she and Lee have to eat people, but is revolted by Jake’s wish to do the same. We’re back to the old debate of nature versus nurture. Are people born queer? Or with addictive personalities? Or psychopathic? Or cannibalistic?
The Director, Luca Guadagnino, has made a number of changes from the book, which are examined elsewhere. The most obvious one, though, is that Maren is brought up and then eventually abandoned by her mother in the book, but her father in the film. This changes the dynamic considerably, because we now have two eaters in the family, both female. The eater parent in both versions is locked up in an asylum, having eaten their own hands, but in the movie it’s her mother, (a short but superb appearance by Chloë Sevigny). We arrive at last at the modern horror archetype, the “monstrous-feminine”, the figure that confronts the male viewer with his fears of being castrated (Freud’s favourite explanation), as well as “the monstrous womb” – a terrifying image of a “black hole which threatens to reabsorb what it once birthed” (Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine, p. 27). The female cannibal is quintessentially monstrous-feminine, terrifying men with the antithesis of popular female stereotypes of giving life and nurturing. In the book, Maren only eats boys or men (after the initial babysitter) – she is drawn to eat those who seek to be close to her. In both versions of the story, the ambiguity is clear to us and the female cannibals – they have a compulsion to eat, but don’t want to hurt others.
Maren’s solution is to try to act normal, fall in love, get a job, get “clean” of the eating. Her mother’s was to lock herself away, and even then she chewed off her own hands.
To me, the most fascinating ambiguity in this film and in our societies generally is the question “who can you eat?” Eating some animals is considered just “normal” – Lee is chewing on bacon (pig flesh) served to him in a very respectable café, and has been working in an abattoir. When they need money, he and Maren rob the abattoir at night, later sitting on the overhead walkway watching the cows who are to be killed for legal, non-controversial eating, when Maren observes
“every one of them has a mom and a dad, sisters, brothers, cousins, kids. Friends even.”
The real question, Derrida says, is not what to eat but how to eat well. Perhaps, as Chalamet has said, it is impossible to live ethically – every act of consumption or energy usage wrecks the environment a little bit more. For some carnivores, this is seen as a ‘bones and all’ issue, they call it “nose to tail” – killing is OK, but wasting any part of the animal is the real crime. But as Maren says, cows also feel terror, pain, bereavement when their babies are taken from them. The author of the book, Camille DeAngelis, went vegan before writing it, indicating that the problem of who to eat, the rude or dying, the human or the cow, weighed on her, and the scene filmed in the slaughterhouse indicates that Guadagnino may have felt the same. Cat Woods’ review in Salon reminds us that Brad, the off duty policeman, chooses to be a cannibal:
“Why would he hunt, slaughter, and feast upon human flesh if he doesn’t need to?
And, if we the audience can be repulsed by that – and his evident choice to slaughter and eat flesh when there is abundant satiety that doesn’t cause violence, pain and loss – then perhaps we need to venture a little deeper into our own psyches and ask: Why would we feast upon flesh if we don’t need to?”
This is a seriously good film, with a great cast and, in the midst of all this carnage, we are treated to magnificent scenery beautifully captured by cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan. I have not revealed the ending, and hope I have not revealed too many other plot points. I recommend you go see it.