‘Ravenous’ Is A Fabulously Gory Horror Film About Cannibalism … But Also Capitalism
The best thing I saw at the Telluride Film Festival this year was Luca Guadagnino’s Bones and All, an adaptation of Camille DeAngelis’s YA novel about a pair of teen cannibals who take to the road somewhere in middle America in the 1980s. It reminded me of any number of my favorite films: Kathryn Bigelow’s trancelike, romantic picture about a band of nomadic vampires, Near Dark; of Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy; and perhaps most of all of Claire Denis’ transgressive, indelible film about the labor of love Trouble Every Day. It reminded me, too, of Antonia Bird’s extraordinary Ravenous: a film packed to the rafters with astonishing actors, a score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn, an experimental psychobilly roots track that, once heard, can never be unheard; and cinematography by Nic Roeg fave Anthony Barry Richmond (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing – and not for nothing, also Bernard Rose’s Candyman) that casts it all in a moody, lurid, hyperrealism. Most of all, what Ravenous has going for it is Bird, an English director who started her career with stage productions, graduated to EastEnders on television, and made her feature film debut with 1994’s Priest that garnered her a lot of attention – most of it good- for its story of a priest (Linus Roache) who experiences a crisis of faith when confronted with the absolute corruption of the Church and, along the way, his own closeted homosexuality.
Bird wasn’t the first choice for Ravenous. In fact, the film went into production in Slovakia with Milcho Manchevski at the helm, a director who had recently been nominated for a foreign film Oscar for his sweeping, tripartite, Macedonian wartime romance Before the Rain (1994). An odd choice on the surface, it proved to be a mismatch below the surface, too. When he was unceremoniously dispatched three weeks in, frustrated by among other things a rapidly-shifting financing situation, he was replaced by Raja Gosnell, the mastermind behind Big Momma’s House, the Scooby-Doo and Smurfs movies (and, at the time of the shooting, the third Home Alone). Gosnell didn’t work out, either. Rumor has it a minor mutiny amongst the cast of Ravenous resulted in his near-immediate ouster, just as star Robert Carlyle’s trust in Antonia Bird, with whom he’d made Priest, made her the favorite for replacement on the fly.
Bird was given an impossible task, essentially being handed the wheel of a $12MM airplane mid-flight. It would have been enough for her to bring it in for a landing, however rough, but Ravenous is something exceedingly special. It has a clear voice: outraged, vegan, clear about how the cannibalism of the piece could function as a metaphor for how male violence is the foundational force behind systems and ideologies of oppression like Capitalism — or, in this instance, war and Westward Expansion. Certain hungers can never be slaked, and the process of doing so is never victimless. Along the way, it also takes a highly-critical view of the composition of the American military, of all the ways in which the seeds for the fall of the American experiment were sown all the way back at the country’s inception. Greed, gluttony, addiction – not to mention the addiction to greed and gluttony – Ravenous is incredible.
The film follows 2nd Lt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce, fresh off of L.A. Confidential) who loses his courage during a losing battle in the Mexican/American war and plays dead by smearing the blood of his fallen comrades all over himself. Placed on a cart with the other corpses, he’s pinned and forced to drink the blood that flows into his mouth. This forced consumption makes him… stronger. More courageous, too, so he rouses himself and murders an entire garrison of the enemy, taking their command post and earning him official plaudits even though his commanding officer suspects Boyd’s only alive because of his cowardice. Accordingly, Boyd is exiled to remote Ft. Spencer in the frozen Sierra Nevadas where he’s left with a band of misfits and his own memories of his men calling out to him for help with their last breaths as he buries his head in the proverbial sand. Boyd is an affront to traditional notions of masculinity and so he’s sent to an outpost led by fey, bookish Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) who as part of Boyd’s onboarding interview, asks Boyd what his hobbies are. “Swimming,” Boyd says, a funny thing to confess in a snowbound hellscape made funnier when we’re introduced to the pointedly-named Private Reich (Neal McDonough), naked and screaming in a frigid river. “The soldier,” Col. Hart says, “I’d steer clear of him.”
Boyd is one of eight men at Ft. Spencer. In addition to him, Reich, there’s pothead Pvt. Cleaves (David Arquette); religion-addled Pvt. Toffler (Jeremy Davies); alcoholic Major Knox (Stephen Spinella), and “locals” George (Joseph Runningfox) and Martha (Sheila Tousey) who “sort of came with the place. They are on the frontier, in the middle of nowhere, and the empty and frozen tableaux provide for Boyd plenty of time for hard introspection. And then Ives (Robert Carlyle) shows up one night out of the dark with a horrifying tale of his wagon train getting stuck in a blizzard with him the only survivor.
Reich asks for clarification from Ives: “You did say you had no food for three months.” Ives says “I said no food, I didn’t say there was nothing to eat.” This of course gets Boyd’s attention. Ravenous is a campfire story: a tale told to frighten with a cautionary warning woven in about trusting the wrong men in perilous journeys across dire straits; and trusting the wrong men when they spin tales without anyone to challenge them. Survivors, colonizers — white men, for the most part — are the ones who get to frame the narrative and literally write the history books that legislate what is allowed to be taught. Ives spins a story that makes him the victim of circumstance, the unwilling participant in unspeakable acts, and Bird amplifies his aggrandizing fabrications with a flashback sequence. This is Bird announcing that she is the ultimate holder of the truth – and throughout she offers winking asides that give us insight into how blinded these men are by their notions of chivalry (the soldiers are lured out of the relative safety of the fort and of their numbers by the idea there might be a woman trapped in a cave with a remorseless cannibal); and masculinity in the reluctance of the men to appear cowardly to one another. She sees them as idiots and they are, in fact, idiots. George tries to warn them by telling Hart the tale of the Wendigo: of how men steal another’s strength in the eating of his flesh in an act that eventually becomes a craven addiction. Hart scoffs but George reminds that Christians engage in ritualistic cannibalism every Sunday during Mass. Thirty minutes in, we’re well into the heart of the nightmare as the good soldiers are led into the wilderness by Ives to discover that Ives is not at all who he has presented himself to be and maybe this has all been some kind of trap. A trap, as it happens, that only Boyd can save them from given his own taste for human flesh. Nyman and Albarn’s score becomes tortured – violin strings pulled to the point of snapping – and Bird continues to insert herself with her mordant sense of humor and obvious disdain for all these macho feats of performative stupidity.
The cast is exceptional, from the top-billed leads to the supporting performers. Each given to expressing their quirkiness in characters that are wholly unconventional for wilderness survival pictures. Reich’s discovery of an underground abattoir where Ives has been using as a human meat locker isn’t structured around a jumpscare, but on the character-defining obsessiveness of gung-ho Reich meticulously counting off the skeletons to try to compare the carnage against Ives’ tall tale. “How many did he say?” Reich says, and all the while Ives starts acting increasingly peculiar under the watch of poor Toffler and Hart. The film’s tension is created through performance and script.
In the course of dissecting the silliness of male bravado, Bird is also deconstructing the traditional way horror and action movies are shot. With most of the party instantly incapacitated by the supernaturally-powerful Ives, it comes down to Reich and Boyd (unwisely) chasing the monster into the woods. Boyd says they should turn back. Reich calls him coward and forces him to continue. It’s a very bad idea, of course, as are most endeavors undertaken as a challenge to virility; the entire Jackass television and film series is documentary evidence of that. But Jackass can also be viewed as a touching essay of what it looks like when men stop judging one another and instead offer an environment entirely accepting of personal foibles and imperfection. Ravenous, on the other hand, is never anything but hypercritical of masculinity. It skewers, so to speak, the empowerment fantasy of superhero mythologies by making the acquisition of power completely dependent on the literal eating of others. The only expression of power is dominance in this world; the only way Boyd thrives is when he gives in to his urge to predate on his fellow man. Boyd asks Martha how to stop Wendigo and Martha says you can’t ever stop Wendigo – once you begin to eat, you must continue to eat and the only way you’ll stop is if someone stronger than you eats you instead.
Most obviously, Ravenous is about Manifest Destiny and the insatiable appetite of colonialism in swallowing up indigenous cultures and lands. It’s about Christianity and its own unfettered hunger devouring old religions and their followers in great, Crusading, genocidal gulps. Boyd indulges in the flesh again to heal himself enough to escape from Ives. When Ives, a few days later, shows up at the camp again, he appears to have been promoted to the rank of Colonel – a commentary Bird is making now on how the military rewards opportunism and by extension how every one of these systems of man are designed to be a ladder in which the only way to advance is through the exploitation and victimization of other human beings. Capitalism is a system of oppression and exploitation. Boyd is the “good” guy and Ives is the bad, but both of them have benefited, and continue to benefit, from the misfortune of the people they’ve been charged to lead.
The final image of the film is of the two of them, wrapped in mortal combat, caught in a giant steel trap. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, everybody knows that the dice are loaded, but this contest of who can take advantage of whom in order to not just survive, but eventually to thrive, is the only game in town. “I found your Pvt. Reich up there,” Ives says, “you didn’t finish him but I don’t blame you, he was tough. A good soldier ought to be.” Ted Griffin’s script is brilliant and Bird wrings every nuance and entendre out of it. More than just extraordinarily smart, though, Ravenous is also a fabulously gory horror film paced with heat. It cooks from one set piece to another; meaning it’s absolutely enjoyable without considering any of the thematic implications of its premise. It’s a masterpiece, so it goes without saying that it was completely overlooked at its time and languishes still in a Fox (now Disney) vault, when its textures and blood would benefit mightily from a hi-definition transfer at last. Bird pulled off a miracle, but not without great personal cost. In a 1999 article in the Independent (https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/film-they-all-but-ate-me-alive-1115720.html), she intimates that Ravenous could just as easily be a commentary on the entertainment industry and in particular her experiences on this film. She says about it, the battles she won and a few she lost in post-production “There’s this disease of thinking your audience is stupid – and they’re not.” Ravenous is brilliant. A movie that shouldn’t be, and yet here it is, a hyper-violent cannibal movie that ends with a speech about how centuries of philosophy have failed to truly grasp how irredeemably debased we really are. A flop in 1999, perhaps its hour has come around at last.
Walter Chaw is the Senior Film Critic for filmfreakcentral.net. His book on the films of Walter Hill, with introduction by James Ellroy, is now available for pre-order. His monograph for the 1988 film MIRACLE MILE is available now.
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