The word “vampire” isn’t uttered once in Bones and All, Luca Guadagnino’s twisted, mythic teenage-cannibal romance. Not once. But no one says “vampire” anymore. I have lamented this a lot lately—the word is never said in Mike Flanagan’s masterful Nosferatu-shaded miniseries, Midnight Mass, not once in last year’s hapless gothic Dracula derivative, The Invitation. And the word is not uttered in Bones and All, either, although if ever a film had a word on its lips, it would be this word and this film.
Bones and All is about cannibalism, but it represents that behavior more as a kind of vampirism: as an uncontrollable urge, an alienating affliction, and ultimately a transformative identity. It is a genetic disease, a lifelong disorder, a social difference. “VAMPIRES,” I wrote in my notebook when I watched the film at the New York Film Festival. “They’re vampires!” I whispered to my friend when we left. “They’re vampires!” he said back.
You have to figure that if a project abjures the term, it’s probably a consequence of the term’s having hit its saturation point long ago—by now defanged by a century of clichés and franchises. In a movie, when characters encounter a monster that they don’t have a bank of reference points or even a name for, it makes for a rawer discovery process and raises the stakes of the danger. Things are slightly different in Bones and All because its vampires are not so traditional—the bloodsucking and flesh-eating that they practice are rougher, coarser, more brutal. This displacement from tradition seems to be an essential aspect of their natures, and the film as a whole.
Bones and All is, in almost every possible way, about being an outsider. It takes place in the 1980s and follows a young woman named Maren (Taylor Russell), who wakes up one morning and finds that her father, who had raised her by himself since her mother left many years before, is gone. He had waited until she turned 18 to leave, but their life together has been hard. Maren has mysterious, violent tendencies; sometimes, she can’t stop herself from trying to take bites out of the people around her. In the film’s arresting opening set piece, Maren attends a slumber party and clamps her mouth down on her friend’s finger while they are painting their nails. Neither Maren nor her father knows why she has these urges. They have lived almost entirely on the run, moving to new towns whenever Maren proves unable to control her urges. She wonders if her missing mother might be able to explain why she is the way she is, so she decides to go searching for her.
It is not long before she finds others like her—or rather, before they find her. An eerie, mousy man named Sully (Mark Rylance), who shares her affliction, explains that he found her by following her scent. He smelled her down the road while she waited for a bus transfer in the middle of the night. They—their kind—are called Eaters, he explains. He doesn’t know where they come from, but he knows that they cannot will themselves to change. He tells Maren of the violent first moment he knew he was different. “Ate my own granddad,” he explains, “while they were waiting on the undertaker.” Afterwards, he lied to his family, saying that “animals got in and did it.” But it wasn’t long before he was on his own, and he stayed that way. Eaters are solitary figures—exiled from their communities and forced to live along the margins.
It’s with some surprise, then, that Maren befriends one of her own. Leon, or Lee (Timothée Chalamet), has been living by himself for much longer than she has. He—itinerant, gaunt, and generally forlorn—has his own rules about how to live as an Eater: when you kill and eat someone, you take their wallet (for money) and their keys (to crash in their house to have shelter for a night). Maren invites Lee to help look for her mom, and Lee invites Maren to meet the family he still occasionally visits. Together, they wander through the backwaters of Midwest America, searching for family but really struggling to overcome the never-ending pangs of self-loathing, guilt, and shame that they experience because of their bloodlust. They eventually fall in love with one another—a prospect that is coded as a kind of self-love, since they share the same nature and deal with the same pain.
That they exist as vagabonds provides the film’s most useful framework, in interrogating and exploring their (but also all Eaters’) particular outsiderism. Maren and Lee’s lives on the periphery of society reinforce the ways that social banishment is connected to privation and poverty. Ultimately, Bones and All is a fable of American economic depression and hardship.
While vampire figures have long provided metaphors for non-normativized identities and sexualities, they’re also more commonly associated with the aristocracy than not—they’re bloodsucking predators, resource-drainers, and their method of feeding is exploitative, about extraction as opposed to destruction. They are often elegant, almost always gentry. At the time of its publication in 1897, Dracula allegorized the contemporary political climate within Ireland (the birthplace of its author, Bram Stoker), where Anglo-Irish landlords still tried to maintain outdated feudal practices even in the face of modern socio-economic liberties, bleeding the residents dry. But in Bones and All, the Eaters are a disenfranchised, ignored, abandoned population, forced into solitude and scrounging, desperation and destitution—and their messy, bloody method of feeding is more about sheer survival than pleasure.
The Eaters represented in the film are drifters, vagrants, and rednecks—facing poverty, homelessness, and itinerance when they must fend for themselves, and incarceration or medical imprisonment when they turn to the state for aid. In fact, in the film, there is not a single middle-class Eater, let alone an upper-class one. This marriage of vampirism and poverty is essential to the film’s thesis: that beings whom society perceives as monsters, ostensibly for the physical threat they pose, are actually shunned for their economic, residential, and lifestyle nonconformity, all of which they didn’t choose in the first place.
Although it’s immersed in the day-to-day existences of its tormented teenage vagabonds, Bones and All is haunted by the primacy of normative middle-class “family values.” The YA novel the film is based on, written by Camille DeAngelis in 2015, takes place in the late 1990s, but the film shifts its time period back a decade—to a political era that capitalized on the criminalization and malignment of the lower class and disastrously widened the income gap. As a reminder that this is the culture our protagonists don’t fit into, several Reagan-Bush signs and bumper stickers salt the background scenery.
The rest of the setting produces the dismal world that those bumper stickers portend; Bones and All is a collection of dilapidated storefronts and dying main streets—a ramshackle graveyard of small-town Americana that stretches for miles. If nothing else, Eaters are scroungers, picking their way through a dying civilization the way wild animals might scavenge and eventually overtake ruins after an apocalypse, which is in this case Reaganomics.
Of the many recurring motifs in the films of 2022, perhaps the most ubiquitous were themes of capitalism and class. Most of the movies that traffic in these investments, like Triangle of Sadness, The Menu, and even Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, performatively put hyper-rich people through the wringer and on the chopping block, while concurrently working to expose the fallacy of property and condemn the greedy. Bones and All shares these concerns but instead allegorizes the widespread victimhood of capitalistic culture—placing it more in conversation with Noah Baumbach’s new film White Noise, which is also set in Midwest America during the 1980s.
White Noise, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 satire of consumer culture, is a carnival of American anxieties that are mediated, medicated, mitigated, and then abetted by an overblown, detached, materialistic culture in which acquisition creates the temporary high of immortality. Bones and All is about consumption, too, and it’s just as personal and survivalist a need—only here, in an industrial landscape made barren by the kind of frenetic capitalism that elsewhere causes environments like the ones of White Noise, the only thing left to consume is each other.
Like many vampire stories, it’s easy to read Bones and All as an addiction narrative. Within its culture of disenfranchisement, there are networks of young, emaciated drifters living off scraps, ruled by their own particular hunger. Lee reveals that his father was an Eater with an almost rabid appetite for flesh; Lee explains to Maren that he had to kill him, tragically, after “he tried to rip me open with his teeth.”
Seeing the Eaters as addicts adds an additional layer of tragedy to the story; not only are they abandoned by a world that should be helping them, but they also fundamentally fall out of that society, too.
There is a moment at the start of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in which solicitor Jonathan Harker, who is visiting the Count’s castle to facilitate a real estate transaction, sees a woman run into the courtyard. “Monster, give me my child!” she screams, before attempting to beat down the door. The Count calls a pack of wolves to dispatch her. Jonathan knows what has happened to her child; not long before, he watched Dracula’s vampire brides eat it. This moment is one of the novel’s rare scenes that convey what it’s like living in the ravished countryside in the Count’s region of Transylvania, where the sudden disappearance of loved ones is a fact of life.
Bones and All flips the conventions of vampirism to personify the horrors of a declining America. While the Eaters are literally responsible for causing people to vanish, the film places the blame on the indifferent administration on high. In one scene, Lee seduces and kills a young man who works at a fairground. He lures him into a cornfield, kissing him passionately one moment and then slashing his throat in the next. He does this so that he and Maren can eat. But this scene nods to a 20th-century epidemic of missing queer men, who lead lives on the periphery of society and are therefore at a greater risk because of it. This is also relevant to Reagan’s America—part of the mass dismissal of the gay community that would only grow more dangerous and tragic during the imminent AIDS epidemic. This America is a nation full of disappearances.
Indeed, the title of the film refers to a practice that both Maren and Lee don’t know about, in which an Eater eats an entire body, a ritual based on the idea that an Eater isn’t a full Eater if they have not had their “bones and all.” Jake (Michael Stuhlbarg), a vile hillbilly Eater with a non-Eater acolyte, Brad (the director David Gordon Green), tells them about this apparent tradition, construing the experience as a kind of virginity loss. But what it really is is an erasure of the body that provides them sustenance. There is no trace of the person who has been sacrificed.
Maren and Lee, and all the Eaters, are serial killers. “We murder people…we ruin lives we don’t even see,” Maren tells Lee one day. It’s true that they, almost like the youthful murderers in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, roam from one location to another, vanishing people—ripping them out of society and bringing them into their own harsh netherworld of anonymity and expunction.
Maren and Lee are aware of the cruelty of what they cannot help but practice. As they seek shelter in a cow slaughterhouse one night, Maren tells Lee, “Every one of them has a mom…and a dad.” She notes that they have a language, they have a culture.
Bones and All wonders a lot about what it means to have a life. This is a film that is full of flesh, but also anti-flesh: ethereality and ephemerality. The first time we watch Maren make a meal out of someone’s body, she does it with Sully the night he sniffs her out at the bus station. He takes her to the home of an elderly woman who has fallen and is slowly dying from it. Sully waits for her to expire naturally before sinking his teeth into her corpse, and Maren, starving, follows suit. They bow down over the body, and as they eat, the camera pans over the items in the woman’s bedroom, over shelves of photographs and mementos, tokens of a long life lived and lived with loved ones.
Bones and All is full of vestiges, proof of life: tape recordings, photos, letters, and other documents that insist someone was once there. Eaterism is represented as a great tragedy—an epidemic, a pestilence almost, with devastating effects (for the victims on both sides), sweeping the nation in secret. Maren and Lee loathe themselves for what they are compelled to do; while they feel no remorse while feeding, it comes in waves afterwards.
It’s dangerous to be an Eater, just as much as it is dangerous to be around one. The animalized consumption that they practice, on the fringes of society, poses a threat to the state that has rejected them, but not more than it threatens the already-vulnerable Eaters themselves. Nothing makes this clearer than the scene in which Maren finally finds her mother, Janelle (Chloë Sevigny)—it turns out, she’s an Eater as well. Afraid of the harm she has long posed to the world by simply existing with her condition, she policed herself into near oblivion: self-incarcerated at a high-security psychiatric institution, prevented from harming anyone after eating off her own hands. By the time Maren finds her, Janelle has destroyed herself so the state doesn’t have to. “The world of love wants no monsters in it,” Janelle writes to Maren in a letter she saved for Maren to read when she finally found her. Maren reads the final line—“so let me help you out of it”—before her mother jumps on her, attempting to destroy her, too.
Folklorically speaking, guilty figures like these bring Eaters closer to werewolves than vampires; Eaters know that they’ll need to feed again, and possess a human disquiet about it until they do. Until Maren meets her mother, it doesn’t seem that she’s ever considering trying to stop herself.
The film is flush with animal allegories, and Eaters are coded that way, too; they kneel beside carrion, picking at viscera with their teeth, like wolves or vultures. When they’re done feeding, their lips and chins, necks and chests, are stained thickly with blood and caked in offal. They’re more bestial than traditional vampires, which are traditionally regal—but in this disenfranchised, run-down setting, this is what they have become.
There is no cure for Eaterism—but, more importantly, there’s no community for Eaters, no help for them at all. The Eaters in Bones and All struggle to form collectives greater than pairs—yes, Maren and Lee find each other against all odds, but they’re unable to build beyond that. The timorous but creepy Sully is mad with the desire for someone to understand his pain, help him carry his burden. The hole in Maren’s life where her father once stood suggests that Sully might be trying to become that figure for her. The Eaters are so bereft of a meaningful social world that the emptiness, the solitariness of their lives, adds additional misery to the suffering they already bear.
Sully tries to make something out of it all, tries to put together liturgical, symbolic strictures or even simple etiquettes. When he eats someone, he cuts off their hair post-mortem and braids it into a gigantic rope he carries around. The shape of this memento suggests he wants to be connected, bound to something—but the practice itself is a feeble, gruesome attempt to commemorate, to remember, to thank those who have nourished him with their bodies and lives. His efforts only go so far as to create a tiny bit of mythology; later, when Maren tells Lee about the man she has met and describes the hair rope, Lee says that he thinks he’s heard of him. There are indeed thin networks of interpersonal connection and knowledge among them; as such, Bones and All weaves myths about the Eater nature into its narrative.
There is almost a history, almost a tradition, almost a world for these figures. The various Eaters Maren encounters—Lee, Sully, Jake—all teach different ways to “be” an Eater, from honing their abilities, to honoring the (eaten) dead, to living with the guilt of what they have done. Ultimately, despite the protagonists’ best efforts to find a community, they can’t—Eaters have been exiled from society and forced into impoverishment for so long that they are doomed to remain this way.
Maren and Lee’s love story attempts to locate a solution; 1980s America is already a world in which love and consumption are seen as the same thing, but the doomed nature of their love reveals the ways in which this concept is a myth that will lead to self-destruction. When a mortally-wounded Lee begs Maren to eat him in the film’s heartbreaking conclusion, the Christ-like parallels of his sacrifice—selflessly giving his body to her so that she might eat and be saved—only result in Maren’s further solitude. They have tried to abandon their ways and rejoin society—Maren got a job; they moved into an apartment together. But it’s impossible for them to rejoin the world again, and this effort comes at the ultimate cost.
Amid all the horrors in Bones and All, none are so severe as those of a deteriorating America—a place that has been losing its population and its community in chunks and ignoring it. It is a country of missing people who, sooner or later, will be forgotten. And it is a country that does not spare dignity for anyone, even its most powerful, semi-supernatural creatures.