Both visually and thematically, "Ravenous" is a messy little film. The
tale of cannibalism in the Old West can't decide whether to be a horror
movie, a black comedy or a sweeping metaphor about American imperialism,
and tries in vain to be all three. The result is a grisly curiosity that
rarely works on any of its levels.
Set in 1847, we follow the morose Captain Boyd (Guy Pearce) to his
reassignment at a remote fort in the Sierra Nevadas. Shortly after his
arrival, Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), a half-frozen Scotsman, staggers to
the encampment and collapses. Nursed back to health, he recounts the
nightmarish story of his group of settlers, forced into cannibalism while
snowbound in the mountains.
The soldiers immediately launch a search for survivors, only to discover
that Colqhoun, hungry for fresh meat, has led them into a trap. Boyd
escapes by leaping from a cliff, then lands on the body of a fallen
comrade and, incapacitated by injury, is forced into cannibalism himself.
Strengthened by the food, he goes back to the fort, only to see Colqhoun
return, this time in the guise of a commanding officer. Shunned by
disbelieving fellow soldiers, Boyd tries to convince them of the truth,
even while fighting an ever-increasing hunger for more human flesh.
After a somber opening, "Ravenous" takes a turn towards black comedy,
with Jeffrey Jones, looking like some grand Dickens' character, drolly
introducing the odd ducks who staff the fort. Jeremy Davies (Corporal
Upham from "Saving Private Ryan") is intriguing as the skittering, giddy
camp chaplain (despite the fact that, for about the fifth film in a row,
he plays a minor variation of the same character) and Neal McDonough,
whose wolf-like blue eyes are mesmerizing, is effective as a soldier
experiencing the 1847 equivalent of 'roid rage. David Arquette, playing a
zoned-out loco-weed aficionado, is fun during his brief time onscreen.
Instead of focusing on these interesting folks, the plot dispatches them
far too quickly as it veers towards straightforward horror. We learn of
Weendigo, a Native American myth which claims that if you eat the flesh
of another, you gain their strength and spirit. The wild-eyed Colqhoun is
a walking testimonial to the belief, displaying super-human strength and
amazing healing powers generated by his taste for humans. As Colqhoun,
Robert Carlyle gives an enthusiastic performance, but Pearce's morose
Captain Boyd is an uninspiring foe for the monster. Almost any of the
other cast members would have been far more entertaining adversaries.
As if things weren't going bad enough, the script takes a self-important
turn, making pompous comparisons between cannibalism and the country's
expansion. In case anyone misses the leaden metaphors, Colqhoun
editorializes about Manifest Destiny, helpfully stating that America
"wants to be whole, stretching out its arms and consuming all it can."
Despite some stunning photography and a powerhouse score, "Ravenous"
succumbs to its own pretensions and lack of focus. Had the filmmakers
ditched the political commentary and followed either the black comedy or
the horror theme, this could have been a nasty treat. Instead, "Ravenous"
is merely an exercise in bad taste. And yes, the pun is intentional.
Copyright © 1999 Edward Johnson-Ott