1999 • 100 minutes • 20th Century Fox
Part allegorical period horror, part black comedy, and dosed with satirical and homoerotic overtones, the film—a troubled project that swapped directors early on, and opened to indifferent audiences and reviews—remains one of the genuine studio-backed curios of the 1990s.
So, you know, SOLD, especially after completing my summer of Hannibal and wailing in its wake. (Will I ever stop wailing into the floorboards about Hannibal? Not as long as The Hazards of Love is on my iPhone.)
Ravenous is a strange and largely forgotten film, despite being part of Fox 2000 Pictures’ 1999 output, which included cult classic Fight Club. And that makes sense: it’s easier to market disaffected white guys hitting each other than a period cannibal movie far less interested in gore than in damning westward expansion.
But that’s a shame, because Ravenous is just as worthy a cult classic as Fight Club is. It’s moody and atmospheric and deeply weird. It’s a quiet movie in a very minor chord that doesn’t ever succumb to the grand theatrical potential inherent in its subject matter. Cannibals and wendigos are real in the world of Ravenous, but they’re just men trying to survive, no matter how they try (and fail) to frame it.
Guy Pearce (fresh off of LA Confidential) stars as Boyd, an American officer in the Mexican-American War, if spending the film in quiet, prim pain counts as starring. (I kid. It totally does.) Booted out of his company after an act of cowardice, he’s sent to Fort Spencer, a thinly garrisoned outpost in the Sierra Nevadas. It’s icy and unfriendly, but it’s home, until they find a preacher half-frozen to death outside. Said preacher, F. W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), tells them about his wagon train, led by Colonel Ives, who stranded them in the mountains and then convinced them to turn to cannibalism to survive. Ives, however, has developed a taste for human flesh, and the garrison heads out to investigate. But Ives and Colqhoun are the same man, and, after a massacre, cowardly Boyd is the only one left who knows the truth about him.
Ravenous is a deliberately awkward film. Parts of the score were performed with an orchestra of musicians playing instruments they weren’t trained on; the effect is something like several people having the same nightmare at once. Emotionally, it hovers a small distance from the viewer; Colqhoun/Ives, even in his well-dressed, well-coifed cannibal glory, is still capable of overtly self-mythologizing, and Boyd, despite being our protagonist, is anything but a hero, dressed in a grimy knit sweater and always cripplingly self-aware. Its Native American characters, Martha and George, provide the wendigo exposition but otherwise resist Native American stereotypes. When Colonel Hart asks George if cannibalism is still practiced by Native Americans, George coolly responds that white men cannibalize Christ every Sunday. Even its humor undercuts the proceedings, from Colqhoun/Ives seductively purring “That was sneaky” after one of Boyd’s many attempts on his life to Boyd’s response to Colonel Hart’s query if he has any hobbies: “swimming,” he says, delicately, everyone uncomfortably aware of how landlocked he is.
This awkwardness reflects the film’s moral ambiguity. You could make a version of Ravenous that is morally black and white, but that version wouldn’t be interesting. What’s interesting is backing self-declared coward Boyd into corners over and over again, just to see what he’ll do. He explicitly says that he’ll never eat human flesh, even when Colqhoun/Ives deliberately invites him into the fold, but he does so. And not, like once, but three times over the course of the film. Are these moments simply failures to live up to the ideal of not eating people? (This is not much of an ideal, I realize.) Or are these indications that he can’t fight his baser instincts, the kind that turned him into a coward?
It’s weird and awkward in service of itself—itself being the kind of film that explicitly calls the United States a wendigo for manifest destiny and has its title credits throw themselves onscreen with a sound effect each. And everyone in the cast is up to the task of playing heightened and off-kilter characters. Carlyle, in particular, is unsurprisingly amazing as Colqhoun/Ives, threatening and inviting even as he’s transparently pathetic. I find Carlyle to be a shamefully underrated actor, but, then again, he’s on Once Upon a Time and has that television money and health insurance, so who am I to judge?
I watched this film on Netflix.