Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the joyously grim cannibal shinanigans of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous.
It’s October, so as is mandated by the universally accepted movie blog charter this month’s Essentials are going to focus on the horror genre. This week’s entry has its fair share of vocal fans, but it deserves many, many more.
Films that open with Nietzche’s quote about the abyss and the dangers of looking for monsters therein typically carry a degree of self-seriousness. The quote’s too well known at this point to deliver much in the way of thematic weight, so movies using it are simply hoping for a cheap bump from the shorthand of its message. Its presence at the opening of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous seems at first to be another humdrum instance, but it’s immediately made clear that what’s to follow will be anything but mundane.
Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is being praised as a hero for bravery and the single-handed capture of enemy troops during the Mexican-American war, but as he watches others at the celebratory dinner engorge on their steaks his memories reveal a bitter truth. As his fellow soldiers fought, he played dead, and it was only once the carnage died down around him that he was able to surprise the enemy and gain the upper hand. His superior knows something’s up and ships him off to remote outpost in the Sierra Nevada mountains called Fort Spencer where a motley crew introduces him to life in the frozen mountains.
Soak in this supporting cast as not only are they tremendously charismatic and varied, but they’re also a somewhat short-lived bunch. The fort is headed up by Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), and the men beneath him include a gung-ho soldier (Neal McDonough), a coward (Jeremy Davies, channeling the spinelessness of his Saving Private Ryan character), a drunk (Stephen Spinella), and a hopped-up goofball (David Arquette). Each of them bring moments of levity and real character, but the best of them is the newcomer who arrives late one night bedraggled and delirious.
F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) shares a haunting tale of a cross-mountain journey aiming for California but ending in hell as the small group found themselves trapped without food in a frozen nightmare. He says one of their troupe, a Col. Ives, killed and ate them one by one until only Colqhoun and a woman were left. He ran away – a coward like Boyd was and Toffler (Davies) soon will be – leaving her in the hands (and mouth) of a cannibal, so the good men of Ft. Spencer saddle up on a rescue mission.
The stage is set for an act of heroism, but Bird and writer Ted Griffin (Ocean’s Eleven) have something else all together in mind.
The entirety of Antonia Bird’s Ravenous is a well-crafted feature with various elements working together to craft a wildly entertaining genre mash-up, but the discovery scene – they find the cave containing the bodies and realize that Colqhoun is actually the killer cannibal – is just a masterful example of everything coming together perfectly. Performances grow more intense, the score (by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman) reaches a fever pitch, and exquisite editing (by Neil Farrell) moves us between the players with a rare urgency and omnipresent fear.
There’s a bravado being targeted here as represented in the strong words and chest-thumping of the men. Courage, strength, and masculinity are tied together as if each requires the next, but all of it crumbles in the face of Colqhoun’s efforts. He kills everyone aside from Boyd who, wisely, chooses instead to escape and fight another day. His perceived cowardice is again criticized, but he survives. Again.
That survival comes at a price though as he’s forced to swallow the thing that disgusts him – in this case, human flesh. His very maleness has been in question by those around him, and it’s only when he takes the very life essence of others that he finds renewed strength. The experience is even describes as adding “a certain virility” to the consumer, but for all the power these men display it eventually succeeds only in cancelling each other out. It’s no accident that the only character who not only avoids all of this posturing about vitality, virility, and strength – but also survives – is a woman.
Martha (Sheila Tousey) loses a brother to the carnage, and she embodies a wisdom and restraint missing from the men. As a native American she believes the cannibalistic threat is a variation on the legendary wendigo, and she knows better than to succumb to its entreaties. She returns to camp just as Boyd and Colqhoun’s final fight is ending, and as the pair bleed out – and while another man takes an unassuming taste of human stew nearby – she does the only sensible thing. She leaves. In a hurry.
Antonia Bird’s film, sadly her final feature, is a beautifully off-kilter experience as seemingly opposing forces meet. The characters of Boyd and Colqhoun are the immediate opposites, but the idea continues throughout. The gorgeous but coldly imposing Tatra Mountains of Slovakia (standing in for the American west) find themselves overrun with the ugliness of men. The gore and violence is paired with terrifically witty dialogue giving the aggressive actions a blackly comic spin. And the score remains consistently offbeat and eclectic in the face of the visuals as energetic string work gives way to a melancholy acceptance of the fates people choose.
Ravenous is many things, from horror to comedy to period tale, but above all else it’s a hugely entertaining romp in need of more love.