Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is a coward. After inadvertently (and indirectly based upon his cowardice) claiming an opposing stronghold during the Mexican-American War, he is relocated for his actions to an outpost in Sierra Nevadas. There, he finds himself second in command of a rag-tag group of eccentric, fellow soldiers. Things take a turn for the eerie when a stranger (Robert Carlyle), half-famished and near death, arrives at their door. The stranger tells them of a lost wagon train he was a part of, and the unspeakable horrors the group resorted to in order to survive. The soldiers take it as their duty to seek out the lost wagon train but not before their Native American guide explains to them the power of the Wendigo. It is a myth that whoever partakes in the flesh of man will gain that person’s strengths and could very well become consumed with this cannibalistic act. Horror and yes, a little bit of comedy ensue.
Why We Love It
The cannibal movie has had a long and winding history. Mostly realized through the mondo and exploitation films of the ’70s and in more recent horror-comedies such as Ravenous, it is a subject matter that, for obvious reasons has never become a mainstream element of story-telling. In fact, the closest to mainstream cinema cannibalism has reached is in the modern take of the zombie film thanks to Mr. George Romero. As far as out-and-out cannibal movies without the aided crutch of the undead go, Ravenous is about as mainstream as it has gotten, and the story and execution involved here is top-notch.
Written by Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven and Matchstick Men) and directed by Antonia Bird, the film is eloquently layered. The story moves from one element to the next with an even flow, and every moment throughout is allowed to breath. This allows the characters time for development beyond the standard single layer found in most horror films. When these men die, and, yes, there are certainly some violent death scenes for the characters involved, it is filled with enough weight to matter.
The cast that embodies these characters (yes, even David Arquette who seemed to be the selling point of the film at the time even though he has less than 20 minutes of screen time) is equally great. Pearce plays the reluctant hero with the best he has to offer, almost fading into the background whenever he is allowed to but coming to the front full-force when it is required of him to survive. As good of a protagonist as Pearce is here, though, the real joy in the acting with Ravenous is in Carlyle’s performance. He is required to show absolute range from his character’s introduction through to the film’s second half when things take a turn for the more violent. Carlyle, no stranger to playing either the hero or the villain, pulls out all the stops and even allowing himself the tongue-in-cheek brevity that goes with the nature of the rest of the film.
That comedy, by the way, is not in your face at any moment. If need be, Ravenous could very well be taken in as a straight horror film without any black comedy elements. They are certainly there, though, if you allow yourself to take them in. When the moments of cannibalism begin, Bird does not shy away from or cut around showing us exactly what is happening. In fact, it could also easily be viewed as a dramatic meal peppered with horror and salted with comedy throughout, never fully broaching either genre or allowing itself to be defined by either. That pepper and salt creates a nervous tension and the eerie nature of the film continues to build all the way through.
It is also a film about isolation, and Bird captures this perfectly. At one point, a character even says point-blank it is lonely being a cannibal. The beautiful, snow-capped mountains serve as the make-shift prison walls housing these men and the pressing danger they have allowed into their camp. After the men venture out to find the wagon train, events turn even more violent, and Pearce’s Boyd is forced to find his way back to that prison, that sanctuary of seclusion that has become his home even if it is a serving reminder of his own cowardice.
An element of Ravenous that cannot go unappreciated is the film’s score. Put together by a collaboration of Blur and Gorillaz founder Damon Albarn and minimalist composer Michael Nyman, it is an often quirky, often nervous, and often intense score that flawlessly captures everything the film is about. The main theme is eccentric in its own right, but its bucolic nature sets the perfect tone for Boyd’s trek to the outpost. The score even goes into more traditional and epic directions, almost calling to mind the Morricone scores of films like The Untouchables and The Mission at times.
The Moment We Fell In Love
Ravenous is a film about a group of soldiers who encounter a man taken over by a powerful force, but unlike other films of this nature, films like Alien, it doesn’t resort to picking the soldiers off one by one. Instead, the film builds to a halfway mark where Carlyle’s character, up until then believed to be a scared weakling in fear for his life, reveals himself for who he truly is. The scene at the cave where Carlyle transforms for lack of a better word, is the turning point of the film, and the fact that he single-handedly takes out the entire group except for Pearce’s Boyd is jaw-dropping. It is a perfectly constructed scene of intensity and quick-edited action, a violent pathway that leads the film into its second half, and it remains the most memorable moment in the entire film.
Ravenous is a film that was unfairly neglected when it hit theaters. Much of this had to do with how hard the film was to market, and the studio behind it, 20th Century Fox, resorted to selling it as a straight horror film. The trailer even came complete with Rob Zombie music. However, it is an intense and oftentimes comical film that unfolds a genuinely disturbing story. Robert Carlyle is frankly one of the great villains of modern cinema, and he could have gone down as such if the film had been given the release it deserved. Ravenous is a film any fan of the horror genre must seek out, not just because it is a film with great horror elements but because it is a truly great study of its characters and the changes one is forced to make in the face of ones own demise.