Archive for March 19, 1999

Ravenous

March 19, 1999

Now here’s a true oddity, destined to be dismissed or overlooked. And no, I’m not tuning up for one of my misunderstood-masterpiece reviews. Ravenous is no masterpiece, but it’s a sturdy and fascinating union of two subgenres that usually aren’t in the same room: the frontier movie and the cannibal movie. I mean, how the fuck did they pitch this to the studio — “It’s Alive meets Almost Heroes“? That a major studio (20th Century-Fox) gave this a wide release, despite its gonzo premise and lack of stars, is heartening; that this noble experiment has tanked on arrival is discouraging. Still, I’m glad it actually got the green light, actually got made, and actually got released, because it has stayed with me longer than any other movie I’ve seen so far this year.

We’re in the mid-19th century, during the Mexican-American war. That right there is enough to raise a red flag of political comment — it was an ugly and unpopular war. Frederick Douglass called it a “disgraceful, cruel and iniquitous war with our sister republic. Mexico seems a doomed victim to Anglo-Saxon cupidity and love of dominion.” The war was about America gobbling up California; in 1848, that state and New Mexico joined the other morsels in America’s swelling stomach. Ravenous draws a direct parallel between the United States’ insatiable hunger for territory and a cannibal’s obsessive craving for flesh. And if you’re a soldier trained to kill fellow human beings, why not eat them too?

Guy Pearce, longer of hair and furrier of face than he was in L.A. Confidential, is the closest thing to a hero — Captain John Boyd, promoted for inadvertent heroism in action (i.e., playing dead to save his skin and getting dragged behind enemy lines, where he captured the Mexican commanders). Boyd’s superior sees Boyd for the “coward” he is and transfers him to the remote Fort Spencer, a mountainous and stark place worthy of an Anthony Mann western. Boyd’s new friends at Spencer include the cynical Hart (Jeffrey Jones, eyes twinkling with sarcastic wit), the “overly medicated” chef Cleates (a giggling David Arquette), the gung-ho soldier Reich (nail-tough Neil McDonough), and the devout young minister Toffler (Jeremy Davies, as recessive as ever).

When the tedium of life at Spencer is broken by the arrival of the mysterious Colquhoun (Robert Carlyle), the real meat is served. I won’t reveal any more — the ads have spoiled enough as it is — but suffice to say that much flesh is eaten and more blood is spilled; the MPAA must really be getting laid-back lately. Director Antonia Bird (Priest), working from a sharp script by Ted Griffin, sustains an antic yet eerie mood, out there in the snowy boondocks where no one can hear you eat. A scene in a cannibal’s underground lair just about matches the art-decorative creepiness of the flesh-eating family’s crib in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Bird’s direction is straightforward and clean, helping us buy into grisly events that just might have happened.

Pearce and Carlyle make fine doppelgangers, and the movie overall is nimble twisted entertainment; it seems to be stopping briefly in multiplexes on its way to a second life as a cult film on video and at midnight shows. I liked its courage in pursuing its dark view of colonialism to the last, bitter drop; it might make a good double-bill with George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which likewise used cannibalism as a symbol of America’s unquenchable hunger and unfillable spiritual void. You find these unhappy but accurate insights in the least likely movies. Ravenous even throws in the Wendigo, the Indian myth about the beast who gains the strength and spirit of the people it consumes. Did the Indians come up with the Wendigo in response to, or in anticipation of, the white soldiers who would consume their land and people? A movie that leaves such idle thoughts bouncing around in your head deserves better than to be called a sick black comedy. Though, of course, it’s that too.

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