Who’s hungry?: A critical review of “Ravenous” (1999)

Curiously, cannibals and Westerns seem to have an odd kinship; at least, the recent film “Bone Tomahawk” and the recent video game “Red Dead Redemption” both mined cannibalistic elements. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the Western ethos of obtainment and the cannibal ethos of consuming. Or maybe people just like eating people in cowboy hats. Regardless, both works have their precursor in “Ravenous,” director Antonia Bird’s intriguing mash-up of Western, horror and black comedy.

Guy Pearce stars as Captain Boyd, who becomes an accidental hero during the Mexican-American War. His superiors send him to California to recuperate in a fort operated by a skeleton crew of military misfits during the winter months. A mysterious stranger appears outside the fort, telling tales of cannibalism on the Oregon Trail–it turns out eating the recently dead perks you up when you’re feeling ill. The soldiers decide to investigate, and you can probably guess it doesn’t end too well.

Post-investigation, Boyd returns to the fort minus a commanding officer. The government responds by sending a new man to oversee the outpost, one who looks a little too familiar to Boyd. I’m not saying a lot here because there are a couple of pleasant twists (nothing that shocking though) that round out the film. Fans of folklore will also be pleased to hear the Wendigo name-dropped in an appropriately folksy setting, although perhaps a little confused by the geography of the film, since the Wendigo is really more of an east coast thing.

“Ravenous” does drag a little bit as it munches along, largely due to a final act in which two flesh and blood revitalized combatants duke it out for what seems like a few minutes longer than they should. I far preferred the film when it was subtly meting out tension–a scene in which the soldiers from the fort investigate a cave combines tight editing with a dramatic, off kilter soundtrack to great effect (the editing, by Neil Farrell, is superb, and the score, by minimalist Damon Albarn and Blur frontman Michael Nyman, has achieved a cult status that rivals the film).

Indeed, for the most part, “Ravenous” is as immaculate as a fresh palate. The cast seems up for the material, which might not be surprising considering they are veterans of quirky horror: David Arquette was a mainstay of the Scream franchise, Jeffrey Jones was the father in “Beetlejuice,” Pearce cut his teeth in the mind-bending thriller “Memento,” and Robert Carlyle was on a singularly stupid Scottish detective show called “Hamish Macbeth.” Well, all right, that last one is a bit outside the circle I was describing, but have you seen that show? It really wasn’t that good. (Curiously, both Jeremy Davies and Neal McDonough later appeared in the FX series “Justified.”)

The design on the film is triumphantly cold, and I mean that. Some movies just look cold. “The Thing,” for one, “Hateful Eight” perhaps. “Ravenous” joins those ranks, which perfectly puts you in the suddenly inadequate snow shoes of the men on screen.

The themes are subtly sketched out by writer Ted Griffin (and the plot is thankfully missing any romance). The film’s questions about courage, civilization and ultimately humanity are well worth pondering. And what might have been a clumsy, obvious questions in another movie is handled here with grace and deft. It’s almost impossible to escape an evaluation of “manifest destiny” in a Western, whether a film takes a romantic, individualist view or a grittier, more militant view of that subject. “Ravenous” quietly falls into the latter camp.

“Manifest destiny,” one character says, observing the chilly landscape surrounding the fort. “Come April, thousands of gold-hungry Americans will be over those mountains, on their way to new lives, passing right through here.” Of course, he’s talking more about the upcoming menu than the changing face of America. Still, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it denouement involving the stew pot at the end of the film suggests that cycle of hunger in America can never be broken. Like the dissonant two-note banjo riff that lurks under the more pastoral and mournful parts of the movie’s enigmatic opening theme, hunger is what is always lying in wait beneath the American dream. Bon appetite.

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