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Ravenous

Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 19 March 1999

  Directed By Antonia Bird

Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle,
Jeffrey Jones, and David Arquette

Written by Ted Griffin

Black comedies have always courted the concept of cannibalism, but few have done so with the fervor of Antonia Bird's Ravenous. Like so many recent films, the idea probably sounded better on paper: a group of soldiers develop a taste for human flesh, and are forced to deal with the conflicting emotions this stirs within them. But Ravenous uses its perch not to entertain but to preach: it's a thinly disguised morality lesson on mankind's animal tendencies, told with some of the most disquieting violence I've ever seen on the big screen.

I'm willing to believe that cannibalism can be funny -- those of you who are Monty Python fans will no doubt recall the comedy team's famous skit about an outbreak of the practice among the British Royal Navy. Ravenous, however, takes the same three minutes of humor and pads it out to two hours, losing the focus and immediacy of the comedy along the way.

Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a decorated veteran of the Mexican-American War, finds himself transferred to the wayward Fort Spencer in the mountains of California. The outpost is a small one, staffed by only eight people, but Boyd doesn't mind: it sounds like the perfect place to recuperate from his recent combat trauma, not all of which is physical.

He's not the only new arrival, however: a Scottish man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) is found nearly frozen to death in the snow outside the camp. He soon recovers, and tells his hosts a strange tale involving the cannibalistic habits of his former traveling companions when they were trapped in a cave together during a fierce winter storm. Colqhoun escaped, he claims, just in time to avoid becoming their next meal.

Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones, the bumbling principal from Ferris Bueller's Day Off), leads the group to the nearby cave to investigate Colqhoun's story. What they find there I will not reveal, except to mention that multiple members of the party eventually succumb to the temptation of eating human flesh, which has ramifications they do not initially suspect.

Ravenous is essentially a vampire movie without the fangs, as the characters who develop a taste for human meat are forced to deal with their unnatural cravings without arousing the suspicion of their companions. Had the film been clever enough to further develop these ideas, we may have been treated to a fine psychological thriller, or at least a decent black comedy. But no: the tale repeatedly goes for cheap shots and cliche'. Robert Carlyle, so charming in The Full Monty, enjoys playing the demented madman here: observe how he cackles like a mad scientist while dragging his latest victim into a cave. Carlyle is no stranger to playing psychotic characters: he was the dangerous Begbie in Trainspotting. But he is less convincing as Calqhoun, probably because the character is so thinly sketched. He contradicts his story so many times over the course of the movie that I never knew whether I was supposed to feel horror, sympathy or mirth towards him.

There are some interesting avenues for character development, which the film unfortunately chooses to ignore: Boyd's experiences in the war are fascinating enough that they deserve their own movie, not the cursory flashback that Ravenous allows them. David Arquette's portrayal of the cackling drug-addicted camp cook seems so inconsequential that I wonder if it was improvised. He has few lines, preferring instead to giggle continuously throughout the movie. The two Indians who live in the camp also appear to have larger stories to tell, though the film doesn't give them the opportunity to become anything more than dialogue placeholders.

It's possible that the movie may have been a worthy thriller if it had stayed within its psychological boundaries; Calqhoun's tale, for example, hits a fine note of tension and horror, and we are at least able to understand the reasoning behind his actions, even if we don't condone them. But Ravenous goes for cheap horror cliches time and time again: Dead people repeatedly spring back to life, ala Friday the 13th. People who are on death's door can be completely healed by a simple taste of human meat, since the flesh gives supernatural powers to any who might eat it, or some similar nonsense. By the time the film attempted to explain itself, I'd quit paying attention.

There are a couple of nice touches. The landscape photography is beautiful (I've always been a sucker for well done snow photography). Also, the musical score from Michael Nyman is unconventional, seeming to consist of three notes played over and over again, conveying a sense of looping, sonic madness. I liked the subtle but disquieting effect this generated.

There are a few entertaining moments in Ravenous, but they are few and far between, a fact that is not helped by the story's slow pacing. The movie is much too long to justify a plot this miniscule; a more liberal fat-trimming during the editing stage (or a better script) would have made it more watchable.


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