Ravenous (1999)

D: Antonia Bird
S: Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle

Absurdist satire of American culture set in 1840s Northern California where a remote, snowbound outpost encounters a wandering pilgrim with grim tales of cannibalism in the mountains which turn out to be only the beginning of a convoluted series of twists and revelations which expose the hidden underside of the emergent United States. It's not strictly a horror film, not quite an adventure film and not exactly a western, but Ted Griffin's screenplay touches on elements of all three. Antonia Bird's direction (taking over from Milcho Manchevski) and Anthony Richmond's photography of the high Sierras (actually various sites in Eastern Europe) turn the whole thing into a surreal, often over-the-top rejoinder to traditional mythologies of the period and the chivalrous, heroic culture which overlaid it.

"Dances With Cannibals" might be an appropriate subtitle in more ways than one. Not only does it argue that the civilisation of 1840s Frontiersmen was little more than colonial butchery, it begins with a lengthy introduction to our hero (Guy Pearce of L.A. Confidential), a soldier whose cowardice during the Spanish-American war in battle lands him at the remote outpost in the first place. His subsequent journey to a different spiritual plane via his encounter with an alien sensibility (in this case the cannibal Robert Carlyle of The Full Monty) is in its own way both a replica and a parody of the already revisionist Dances With Wolves. There's even a dash of Native American myth thrown in, as the local scouts (named "George" and "Martha"...geddit? nudge nudge wink wink) explain the myth of the Weendego, a monster who gains strength through the consumption of human flesh, but who also becomes addicted to it and must eat more (basically a variant on the classic vampire).

Taking the film seriously is difficult. Not only does it veer wildly from dark satire to broad comedy, it is unevenly paced and structured. Minor characters seem available for whatever purpose the narrative moment serves, to the extent that a giggling pothead played by David Arquette seems to be built up for a big moment which never comes and base commander Jeffrey Jones meets an unexpected fate, only to meet another one not long after, and finally to face a third which allows the movie to reach its climax. At the centre of it all is Pearce, whose intense performance is in sharp contrast with Carlyle's. The latter is a frightening presence presence, dark eyes glaring from underneath long hair and behind a satanic goatee and moustache, but also exudes wry self-awareness and has tremendous fun, as such villains often do, manipulating our identification with him and earning our admiration despite our disgust.

It's all very clearly allegorical though. There are plenty of intellectual ideas present, and the film plays upon the metaphor of cannibalism to deconstruct the myths of the American west obviously invoked by the presence of members of the army and the constant referral to religion (Carlyle even elevates cannibalism to an alternative social system and has nefarious plans to expand his community of followers). There is an obvious timbre of abandonment, disillusion and loneliness which affects the soldiers. This contrasts with the unity and strength represented by the would-be cannibal cult, and the idea of gaining strength through destruction obviously has less to do with physiology than it does with convenient analogies. At its heart is a concern with the self-destructiveness of expansionist cultures, literally consuming everything they touch with little concern for the consequences. Consumption itself has various meanings within the film, as Carlyle reveals he was suffering from TB (once known as 'consumption') before he discovered cannibalism, and the constant restatement of the aphorism "Eat or Die" which reduces life to a struggle between creatures who must destroy each other to survive.

It is also clear that not everything has been fully worked out though, and it does seem to reinvent itself so frequently that it's difficult to understand as narrative entertainment. It's more like a cinematic elaboration upon certain concepts and themes which loosely come together in the chosen setting and with these miscellaneous characters. It's not entirely successful, mixing too many elements and too many tones to engage general audiences, and it's not quite as satisfying a yarn as previous cannibal-themed social satires such as Parents and The People Under the Stairs. Like these films, it is also patently absurd, throwing all credibility out the window in favour of confrontations which set the various thematic elements in opposition and advance the plot, regardless of logic and motivation.

It is also, predictably, fairly disgusting, climaxing with one of the most brutal one-on-one physical contests seen in quite some time (topped off with a punchline which either undercuts its seriousness or crowns its satire, depending on how you approach it). There are some funny lines, but it's not constantly humorous and not really approachable as a comedy. Yet the horrors lend themselves to laughter (in relief or scorn) and Bird and Griffin have decided not to tempt fate by omitting deliberate yuks altogether. How much you laugh at the wrong moments will ultimately determine just how successful you think the film has been. The film also boasts an unusual score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn which begins to grate on the nerves after a while, but effectively reinforces the deliberate strangeness and surreality of this trip through the haunted landscape of one of the last major representational taboos.

On the whole Ravenous is quite watchable and it does raise one or two pertinent points. It's hard to ignore entirely, though it may well strike you in the wrong mood and simply seem like a waste of time and talent. Carlyle is very good nonetheless and the images have a way of staying with you afterwards, which has to count for something. It's not quite the dog that many critics have made it out to be, but it's hardly great art either. It's worth seeing if you have a strong stomach and a taste (okay, bad pun) for the off-beat. Just don't expect either subtlety or elegance in its handling of the material and its approach to the audience and you'll probably be okay.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.