Cannibalism has seen a weird uptick in the year 2022 (yes, three movies dealing with the topic in one year count as an “uptick” in my books). None of us, or at least I, saw Steve from “Fresh” abducting unsuspecting women like Noa to cut them up and then sell them piece by piece to the highest bidders. The same can be said about “Resurrection,” where it seemed like David was a sickly, abusive husband. But the insinuation that he had eaten Margaret’s baby because he couldn’t tolerate seeing her give it more attention than him truly came out of nowhere. And then there’s Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones and All,” which certainly didn’t hide the fact that the director has made a movie about cannibalism. Because it wasn’t treated as a twist in the movie and instead was used to underscore every bit of the plot’s progression and the emotional development of its characters. So, let’s talk about it.
Major Spoilers Ahead
Coping with Abandonment
If you take the cannibalism in “Bones and All” at face value, you can see it as this strange culinary preference that the characters have that somehow also allows them to seek out others like them. But director Luca Guadagnino, writer David Kajganich, and author Camille DeAngelis have obviously imbued this characteristic with loads of subtext. A surface-level reading of the film makes cannibalism seem like a means to cope with abandonment. Not only Maren’s mother but her father walked out on her because of her “disorder.” Maren’s mother, Janelle, was abandoned by her biological parents. She caught a glimpse of normal life while living with the Kerns and by marrying Maren’s father. However, the feeling of not belonging anywhere probably caused her to relapse. Lee came from an abusive household, which eventually caused him to abandon his family. Jake’s and Sully’s (is this an “Avatar” joke?) backgrounds were pretty ambiguous. But the fact that they were vagabonds hints at their estranged relationship with their respective families.
The description of the high after consuming a person is very similar to that of drug consumption. And if we can be specific, it’s clear that the 1980s period setting of the film is likening this coping mechanism to the cocaine epidemic that occurred during that era in real life. Nationwide surveys showed that over 22 million Americans had tried the drug at least once in their lifetime, and around 2 million or more were severely dependent on it. The reasons could’ve been genetic, social, environmental, physical, and mental reasons. There was no sure way to say so. So, the film also doesn’t specify why they resort to cannibalism specifically and not anything else to deal with their sense of loneliness and lack of family ties. But it does draw a direct line between a dearth of human connections and an understanding of one’s roots to it. In a melancholic way, “Bones and All” shows that there’s no way out of it. Except for Jake, whose fate is unclear, everyone’s arcs come to a tragic end because of their need for human flesh. You can say that Maren brought this cycle and transfer of trauma by saving Lee’s life by eating him. However, given the ambiguity of the ending, I can’t say for sure if she’ll permanently relapse into her old ways or not.
Dealing with Emotional Attachment Issues
The cannibalism in “Bones and All” can also be an indicator of the characters’ need for emotional attachment, which is a direct result of the sense of abandonment they feel. It’s mentioned twice in the film that the first person that Maren bit into was her babysitter, who was essentially a substitute for her parents. Lee said that he also bit her babysitter first and then eventually went on to consume his father. Sully is practically a serial killer and going by the long string of braids in his bag, he has eaten only women. The two people that we do see him eating up are an elderly lady and Lee’s sister Kayla (off-screen). Again, Jake and his friend Bradley are in the dark (both quite literally in terms of the cinematography and in terms of the plot). We can only assume that they are suffering from the need for love. But the reality can be quite different, and maybe they’ve surpassed such humane desires and are purely animalistic in nature. No disrespect to animals, though, because they also crave love.
So, going by that logic, when the eaters (that’s what the cannibals refer to themselves as) eat someone, they are essentially reaching the highest level of emotional and physical proximity to a living, breathing person. They are filling up the void that’s left by a parent, a child, a friend, a lover, or anyone who used to be a pivotal figure in their life by eating people who resemble them, figuratively or literally. The reason why eaters don’t eat other eaters isn’t because they can’t. It is because they are restraining themselves from doing so since only an eater can relate to an eater. They can be themselves around one another without fear of judgment or deception. Lee states that the rules aren’t written in stone or anything, and Janelle technically tries to eat Maren, thereby proving that their kind isn’t incapable of eating each other. Then what does Maren’s consumption of Lee mean? Well, as explained by Lee himself, the act of eating him out of love gives it a positive spin. Because, in this case, Maren isn’t eating another human being out of compulsion. She’s freeing him and governing her needs instead of letting those needs govern her.
Understanding Sexuality in a Broken America
In addition to all this, cannibalism in “Bones and All” can be seen as an extension of the characters’ sexuality or their attempt to explore their sexuality. Not every consumption is non-sexual in nature. The characters do express a sense of thirst before consuming some of their meals. The first time we see Maren consuming a girl, Taylor Russell gives Maren’s gaze and her physicality an erotic undertone. When Lee goes after the Booth Man, it technically feels like a sequel to “Call Me By Your Name” (also directed by Guadagnino and featuring Timothée Chalamet) until he slits his throat. The lights, the camera angles, the pacing, and the score are purposefully “romantic” so that the murder feels as shocking as it is. Jake and Bradley’s relationship clearly has a gay undercurrent, or they are homoromantic and asexual. Because Jake says that Bradley didn’t partake in the act of eating and instead just “watched.” I want to say that Sully is too far gone to even understand the nuanced aspects of life and is too driven by his need to find a daughter figure in his life.
The 1980s saw a major shift in society all over the world in terms of perceiving gay culture. Due to the HIV and AIDS epidemic, things became very binary in nature. Homophobia was rampant. And that definitely stemmed the process of understanding what one’s sexuality was. This binary nature is present in the eaters versus food dynamic in “Bones and All.” It’s the cannibals’ way of surviving in a world that doesn’t want to understand them and wants to demonize them. When they come of age (evident from Maren mentioning that she’s 18), they seek out a fellow eater and eat together. Maren and Lee’s assimilation into society is their attempt to not accept their status quo. Sully’s violent actions are his way of stating that he’ll never be able to do what Maren and Lee have done. However, as per Sully, if he can’t have a “normal life,” nobody else can have one as well. And that underscores the tragedy of people like Lee and Maren, who are okay with the notion that no one else will see them like they see each other, yet they can’t move forward because everyone else can’t put a stop to their binary thinking.