MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Guy Pearce (Capt. John Boyd), Robert Carlyle (Colquhoun), Jeremy Davies (Toffler), Jeffrey Jones (Lt. Hart), John Spencer (General Slauson), Stephen Spinella (Knox), Neal McDonough (Reich), David Arquette (Cleaves)
Composed of one part horror film, two parts black comedy, a dash of strained metaphor, and a whole heaping of plain weirdness, "Ravenous" is a terminally oddball gore flick that mixes handfuls of disparate elements with wicked verve. The film is set in 1848, with references to the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and other historical incidents, but somehow it all feels like modernity in dingy, 19th-century garb. But, the historical setting it merely a backdrop to set the stage for the movie's true purpose: diving headlong into the ultimate human taboo--cannibalism--which here functions as both grist for the horror set and a metaphor for ... oh, who knows.
Guy Pearce--whose long hair and scruffy goatee make him look world's apart from the straight-laced, no-nonsense cop he played in "L.A. Confidential" (1997)--stars as Captain John Boyd, an officer in the Mexican-American War whose paralyzing cowardice in the heat of battle catapults him into misplaced heroism. For his accidental bravery, Boyd is rewarded by an assignment at Fort Spencer, a desolate outpost deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, manned only by a skeleton crew of a half-dozen eccentric, somewhat stir-crazy soldiers, led by the overweight, bookish Lt. Hart (Jeffery Jones).
The story really picks up when a mysterious stranger named Colquhoun (Robert Carlyle) stumbles into the fort late one night, seemingly starving and nearly frost-bitten. When he regains consciousness, he spins an unsettling Donner Party-like story of trying to cross the mountains with a wagon train, getting trapped by the snowstorm, and eventually resorting to cannibalism to survive. When Boyd, Hart, and the others check out Colquhoun's story, they find much to their surprise that he was not being entirely truthful. It is here that "Ravenous" really begins to twist and turn, with characters turning out to be not who they seemed, and events reaching gruesome, near-ludicrous heights.
"Ravenous" was directed with flair and dark humor by Antonia Bird, whose last two films were the awful and pretentious "Priest" (1994) and the offbeat teen romance "Mad Love" (1995). Here, she trades in mythology about the most ancient human taboo, mainly the idea (supposedly based on an old Indian myth) that by eating the flesh of another human being, you absorb his strength and vitality. Once this is established, the movie quickly takes on supernatural overtones, with characters eating their way into becoming super-beings who heal with unnatural quickness, possess unreal strength, and, as the title suggests, develop an ever-increasingly ravenous appetite for that which gives them their power. A metaphor for modern consumerism, perhaps? A sick metaphorical twist on Manifest Destiny? Who knows.
Thematic elements aside, "Ravenous" is certainly a gruesome film, one of the more graphically violent to come out recently. As filmed by Anthony B. Richmond ("Playing God") in muted, wintry tones that contrast nicely with bright red blood, "Ravenous" presents its violence with a kind of reckless glee, much like "Very Bad Things," which came out a few months ago. It is a black comedy of sorts, and some of its twisted humor is derived from its happy smashing of taboos and good taste. Restraint was not high on the filmmakers' list of priorities.
While some films that have dealt with cannibalism--dramas such as "Alive" (1993) or "Fried Green Tomatoes" (1991)--tread lightly on the subject and kept most of it off-screen, "Ravenous" dives right in, so to speak, scorning napkins and getting blood all over the table. We are treated to gruesome close-ups of knifes cutting into human flesh, human stew, and a final battle between two super-charged cannibals--one good, one bad--that ends with numerous impalings on a variety of objects, including a pitchfork and an enormous bear trap. None of this gore is as upsetting or off-putting as a simple description suggests, mostly because Bird takes a comic book approach to the material. She never once suggests that any of this should be taken seriously except possibly in metaphorical terms, and even that strips the violence of its visceral impact.
The only problem is that "Ravenous" never really gains its own footing. It's so busy keeping the audience off-balance that it never reaches or maintains any kind of consistent approach. Strange characters come and go, including an Indian woman who never talks and a mid-1800s incarnation of a stoned hippie played by David Arquette ("Scream"), who is only slightly less irritating here than he is in those "1-800-CALL-ATT" commercials.
And, amazingly enough, despite all its boundary-busting, "Ravenous" is not nearly as memorable as it seems it would be. It isn't too hard to imagine that a movie obsessed with grisly violence and the ingestion of human flesh would leave more of a retinal impact than this one does. Maybe it's because none of the characters are ever that interesting (with the exception of Carlyle, who successfully makes a major turn in the middle of the film without losing the basic essence of his character), or maybe it's because the movie treats its potentially incendiary subject matter too lightly. Either way, "Ravenous" is certainly worth seeing as an oddity, but it's not one you're likely to remember in the long run.
©1999 James Kendrick