Antonia Bird directs this 1999 western-adventure-comedy-horror film which has a runtime of 101 minutes and was rated 18 on its UK release due to themes of cannibalism in it. Writer Ted Griffin takes inspiration from the Donner Party and Alfred Packer, two real-life accounts of cannibalism that occurred in 1800’s America. With such a grizzly theme you would not really expect this to be as tongue-in-cheek as it is at times, but the film it rife with dark humour and satire which makes it a fun watch. In addition, the unique musical score brought by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn (Blur & The Gorillaz) add to this film being an engaging watch.
It is 1847. During the Mexican-American war, Second Lieutenant John Boyd (Guy Pearce) sees his comrades in the US Army being massacred, he plays dead out of cowardice. While being carted away with other ‘corpses’ he momentarily finds bravery and clears and captures a Mexican outpost. His heroism earns him a captain’s promotion but at a cost. When his superior finds out about his cowardice he is sent to a remote outpost where his cowardice will not infect the brave soldiers fighting the conflict. His new base sees him surrounded by a motley crew of losers, a drug addict, a sociopath, a religious man, and a native American and his sister, to name but a few. Some time after joining the garrison a stranger turns up called Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle). He tells the garrison of how he only just survived the harsh conditions to make it to them, and that his party were trapped, and in addition that one of the party had gone mad and turned to cannibalism. This scares some of the garrison, in particularly George who warns Boyd of the Wendigo myth – anyone who eats the flesh of their enemies absorbs their strength but also becomes a demon who lusts for more human flesh. The troupe go to investigate the cave where Colqhoun says the party were last seen. When they arrive, things are not as they were meant to be, but neither is Colqhoun.
I thoroughly enjoyed this film when I first watched it, since then it has found its way into my movie collection and regularly gets watched. Although it bombed at the box office (it was made with a budget of $12 million and only earned $2 million at the box office) I know that it has earned a small cult status – at least in the film club circles I have travelled in anyway. Antonia Bird only came into the role after the original director, Milcho Manchevski, left the role. It was Robert Carlyle who recommended Bird as he had worked with her previously. It worked well because Carlyle is brilliant, and Bird seems to keep the whole film tight and captivating. Anthony B Richmond leads in cinematography, helping to create a beautifully looking and engaging work of art. It was shot in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and the mountainous and occasionally desolate landscapes realty give the film a stark feel. There are times where it feels like the landscape is massive and never ending, but likewise there are moments where everything feels small and confined. The pace of the film works well, and the editing is complimentary to the story. There are some really blood thumping moments with excitement, tension, suspense and action, but these are interspersed with slower moments which allow the audience to catch its breath and take stock of what happened – both wrapped up with the occasion darkly humorous quip. The plot is simple but solid, the concept is original in the world of horror, and the film has the ability to put a spotlight against darkest aspects of the human mind and poke it – which I will come onto later.
Complemented exponentially by a stellar cast, there are plenty of big names amongst the small handful of stars who take up the main story within the remote garrison. Robert Carlyle is fantastic in pretty much all he does and really knows how to turn on the menacing lunatic mode. Guy Pearce can invoke plenty of emotion, allowing the audience to really empathise for him and his fears. Pearce is the road of morality in the film, so the audience uses him as a vehicle. Carlyle on the other hand is chaos and ambiguity – he’s the “what if” and the “why” to Pearce’s intended goodness. He is the little devil sat on Pearce’s should saying “go on”. Together as the main leads they really play off each other well and seem to have a load of fun doing so. In supporting roles, you have Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, John Spencer, Neal McDonough and David Arquette – all of whom do a brilliant job. They all bring a different persona to the table that help to show the highs and the lows in Boyd’s character.
Ravenous is more than just a cannibalism film as it deals with whole complex list of themes, some of which might be lost on certain audiences. Morality is one of the biggest to be explored – is it right or wrong to consume human flesh? If it is right, how is the right way to go about it? What relationship does that morality have with society? This is not an outright horror with supernatural entities flying around, more the horror of man. It is looking at how monstrous man can be as he goes through life trying to decide what is right and what is wrong. Then looking at how those decisions are interpreted and handled by people around that man. The film also looks at the horrors of war – looking at how far man will go to survive and the morality that goes hand-in-hand with the decisions. The early explanation of Boyd’s actions as cowardice for example, is it actually cowardice, or has everyone checked their brains in at the door with the armed conflict which is going on? Are people just too happy to throw their life away for an ideal that they are being sold, are they happy to run off and die because somebody told them to? Could it transpire that Boyd is sensible for seeing the light of self-preservation and the value of life? Maybe Boyd is the only sensible person at the beginning of the film, then he uses his clever to get the upper hand – only to be admonished by his superior for not winning in the acceptable way. Is Boyd the only sensible person again later when he only consumes human virility to preserve his own life to try and win unconventionally again. Colqhoun on the other hand becomes the accepted norm later, and can convince people he is right, despite becoming an addict. This, is almost an interpretation of morality again, is something that is wrong, instantly recognised as righteous if enough people believe in it? I guess, like our knowledge of mankind’s history, it is written by the victors, by the strong, and by the people who can convince other that it is correct. Off the back of that last sentence, another theme explored is power, who holds power, how did they get to hold it, and how are they going to wield it and keep it. Rather than turn this review into a full-on psychological exploration though I will lock Freud out and wrap things up.
I genuinely could go on and on analysing this film and interpreting different meanings from the actions on display – and this is a testament to the film and how well it is presented and delivered. I genuinely enjoyed it and recommend it to people. It’s not something I could put kids in front of with it’ 18 rating, but it certainly is something that people can enjoy. Even if you do not read into this rare and unappreciated masterpiece like I do – let us say you just come for the pretty lights and sounds – then you should still find some enjoyment here. It is gruesome, it is gory, it is funny, and it is thrilling. It is got suspense, it is got action, it is got the level of dark humour that us Brits do oh so well.