Directed by Antonia Bird
Written by Ted Griffin
Czech Republic, UK, and USA, 1999
Director Antonia Bird’s Ravenous is a bizarre amalgamation of humor and horror that explores cannibalism with warped nuance. The strangely cacophonous score builds up tension as craven outcasts face a glutinous and depraved attacker whose strength seems fortified by his consumption of human flesh. Set during America’s westward expansion, the metaphor of humanity’s insatiable appetite for power is plain to see but its execution indulges in such eccentricities that it is still a gruesome pleasure to behold.
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce of Memento and L.A. Confidential) is a reluctant soldier who plays dead in a battle during the Mexican-American War and ends up at the bottom of a pile of corpses. The blood of his more heroic comrades inadvertently flows down his throat while he is pinned beneath them and surprisingly, he is able to push their bodies off and capture the enemy single-handedly. After truthfully telling his commander the full story of his survival, he is sent away from respectable society to the remote Fort Spencer in the Sierra Nevadas. A motley crew of loners and addiction-addled lowlifes inhabit the outpost surrounded by blustery, snow-covered mountains. Reveling in absurd dialogue as much as it delights in visualizing graphic scenes of humans picked apart for meat, Ravenous is a film that teeters between outright silliness and dark ruminations about the nature of hunger.
Boyd barely has time to settle in when a survivor of a wagon party turns up at the fort. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle of Trainspotting) openly confesses about having to resort to cannibalism during an arduous winter hiding out in a cave. He claims that one Colonel Ives instigated the bloodbath and that they must go back to try and save the woman that remains with him. That Colqhoun is leading them into a trap is obvious, yet the pressing score and Carlyle’s mischievous air carry us through a long journey to the ghastly action. British composer Michael Nyman (The Piano and Gattaca) teamed up with Blur frontman Damon Albarn to create the inventive sound that drives the psychological warfare of the story. The dissonant music is an odd combination of bluegrass and classical that is at first jarring but eases the viewer into the morbidly peculiar tone of the film.
Colqhoun’s self-centeredness is clearly a projection of the notion of manifest destiny that was occurring during the settling of the 1800s. Just as early settlers felt justified to force their way into every corner of the land and take what they wanted, Colqhoun feels entitled to other people’s lives if he can overpower them. He is owed what he can steal. The other ragtag characters have a little fight in them, but the likes of a soft-spoken Jeremy Davies (Spanking the Monkey, The Locusts) as the religious Private Toffler and Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Buller’s Day Off, Beetlejuice) as a compassionate leader readily cower in his presence. A steely Neal McDonough turns in a frenzied performance as a gung ho and mentally unbalanced officer who has all the gumption that Boyd lacks. David Arquette makes much of his little time on screen as a stoned cook who laughs rather than cries his way through time in the middle of nowhere.
On the surface, Ravenous feels like an expanded and exaggerated version of the real Donner Party disaster, but it complicates a straight interpretation of cannibalism as something just done for survival or out of madness. These men are never just one thing. They have complicated reasons for murdering others for food. Bird’s cannibals get lonely and have plans for the future. The movie also succeeds by borrowing the Algonquin mythology of the wendigo, which is said to be a demonic possession that occurs when one consumes another human being and gains the deceased’s power. Boyd recognizes that Colqhoun knows this and that the spirit of the wendigo might be real. Both have benefited by eating human flesh and briefly attained an almost supernatural strength and courage that takes over after an appalling meal. The difference between the two men is that Colqhoun embraces his potential as a cannibal while Boyd loathes himself for giving into it at all. Guy Pearce’s silent brooding is rendered almost invisible underneath the weight of Carlyle’s intensely madcap performance. His wild eyes, bloodstained lips, and heavy breathing convey the appearance of a stark raving lunatic but there is an eloquent reservation and articulation of his feelings in other scenes that paint Colqhoun as a calculating, thinking man’s cannibal.
The candor of Carlyle’s snarling and sarcastic Colqhoun is what solidifies the horror behind the film. It’s a shame that Bird (who also helmed the Carlyle-starring Priest and Face) has only directed television since Ravenous, as this movie spectacularly subverts the cannibalism genre by extrapolating beyond the degree of our consumption to how complicated and morally vulnerable we are. The schizophrenic mishmash of many styles and personalities make Ravenous a savagely playful and memorable mind game.