Ravenous. 1999. Directed by Antonia Bird. Screenplay by Ted Griffin.
Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, John Spencer, Stephen Spinella, Neal McDonough, Joseph Runningfox, Bill Brochtrup, and Sheila Tousey.
Rated 18A. 101 minutes.
Frequently working with actor Robert Carlyle, director Antonia Bird was quite the talent – she sadly passed away two years ago in the fall. Her previous films with Carlyle, Priest and Face, were both vastly different, as is Ravenous. However, there’s something deeply intense about each one of them. While Priest concerns a Roman Catholic priest struggling with his homosexuality, Face is a rough story of capitalism amongst gangsters in 1980s Britain. In turn, Ravenous is a horror period piece set in California during the 1840s which takes on the concept of manifest destiny – using cannibalism as a metaphor.
So it’s easy to see that Bird wasn’t simply a director, I found her work took on a sort sociopolitical landscape, each taking on their own fight. Not to say you can’t just enjoy these films on their own, certainly you can. But it’s always more interesting to me when a solid film also has a message behind its flashy looks and gestures.
Ravenous, to me, is a perfect film. Others find it not near such a piece of work, however, that’s fine. I understand why certain people may not like it. Personally, there’s a perfect balance of everything here which combines together into a very entertaining and at times scary movie. There is so much to love here: the look of the film, the feel of its colours and its vibrant scenery; the unsettling story at its centre, the performances; and on top of ALL that a highly different score from Blur’s Damn Albarn and the fantastic Michael Nyman. This is one movie I remember seeing when it came out in 1999, afterwards I rented it constantly in my last year of high school and watched it repeatedly. There’s a mystical quality about Ravenous – it’s at times dark and terrifying, others it has a tongue in cheek feel to its black comedy. This is one film which never loses appeal for me and every single time I watch it many scenes continue to creep me out, no matter how many times I see them.
After the Mexican-American War and nearing the tail end of the 1840s, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is celebrated for taking an enemy command from behind Mexican lines singlehandedly. After General Slauson (John Spencer) realizes Boyd was able to do so out of a cowardly act – hiding under a pile of his platoon’s dead soldiers until the time was right – he promotes him instead to a hateful outpost in Fort Spencer, along the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Once there, he meets the man strange inhabitants of the lonely military outpost: Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) the jolly yet aloof man running everything; Private Reich (Neal McDonough), a certifiable psychotic of a soldier; Major Knox (Stephen Spinella) the resident doctor and drunkard, found most mornings vomiting before anyone else is out of bed; then there’s also two Natives, Martha (Sheila Tousey) and her brother George (Joseph Runningfox), the “over-medicated” Private Cleaves (David Arquette), and religious fanatic Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies).
Shortly after Boyd’s arrival, a strange man wanders into the outpost, emaciated and weary, almost near death. The soldiers take him in and nurse him back to health. They discover his name is F.W Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle). He proceeds to tell them a terrifying story of how their party got lost in the wilderness and ended up finding shelter in a cave. As conditions worsened and they were stuck inside, all the food ran out. Eventually, similar to the story of the Donner Party, the group resorts to cannibalism. Scared for his life, with only himself, a woman named Mrs. MacCready, and a dangerous army man called Colonel Ives left, Colqhoun ran into the wild and wandered for weeks until reaching Fort Spencer.
Deciding they had a duty to go out and try to find any survivors, Colonel Hart, Captain Boy, and all the rest set out with Colqhoun in tow. Along the way they all wake one night to the screams of Private Toffler who insists Colqhoun was doing something to him – “he was licking me,” Toffler tells them. Insisting they tie his hands for fear he might do something else, Colqhoun leads them further on to the cave where he and his party succumbed to their base instincts. There, a horrifying secret is revealed. What follows is Captain John Boyd’s efforts to not simply survive, but to also reclaim his bravery when again faced with shades of his previous cowardice.
To start, I’ve always loved the individual performances in this film. Some times when you have an ensemble cast like this, character development can get lost amongst the runtime; you can’t always let every character say a ton, or do a ton, and too often filmmakers sacrifice this in order to cut down on the length of a film. With Ravenous, the screenplay from Ted Griffin (in my opinion it’s easily the best thing he’s ever written) allows each character enough room and time to be heard, as well as the fact Bird’s direction gives everyone equal measure. At least, that is, until certain events really put a damper on all the fun; in a good way, though, plot-wise.
I don’t want to go through every single character, but I need to mention at least several.
First, there’s the supporting character of Private Toffler played by Jeremy Davies. He’s a great character actor who has appeared all over film and television. This movie is actually the first time I remember seeing Davies and being incredibly impressed; one of those small performances that stuck with me and then prompted me to go back and see anything else I could with him in it. This is a quirky role, very strange, but I think Davies is the only guy who could pull it off without it straying into a laughable performance. There’s a sensitivity to his religious solder Toffler I don’t think many young actors would’ve tapped into in the same way.
Second there is Neal McDonough. He plays the insane Private Reich. I even love the brief cutaway to him standing shirtless in a freezing, running river as Colonel Hart first talks about him to Boyd; great, quick moment. Even though his character is one of the many unfortunate souls in the early half of the film to have a fatal run-in with Colqhoun, we’re treated to a decent bit of his performance. McDonough’s not someone I usually find particularly great, except for a couple roles, but I’ve no doubt that his performance as Reich is a fun one. He’s got the cocky sense about him exhibited in so many other roles he plays, yet it works so well here; along with that there’s also a sternness in him that usually doesn’t come across. Nice job with a brief role.
Now the main two performances from Robert Carlyle and Guy Pearce are the best of Ravenous. It doesn’t hurt to have an excellently filled out supporting cast, such as this film has. Regardless, Carlyle and Pearce each hold beyond their weight.
There’s great range in Guy Pearce. Not sure how he’s viewed overall by people, but I think he is a fascinating actor. Here, he plays a man whose cowardice is evident in his own mind, he battles with it nearly every moment of his life. After his experiences during the Mexican-American War, Boyd is a broken man because he know what he did was cowardly, but there’s no changing it, he has to live with every bit of that. Even worse, his act of bravery after lying under the corpses of his dead platoon mates only came about because of the power of the Wendigo. This is something he’s forced to confront all over again after Colqhoun annihilates the rest of the soldiers in his outpost. He takes the coward’s way out by jumping off the cliff, which I assume he thought would probably have killed him, rather than face Colqhoun. Then he’s stuck in the pit with a dead Reich, forced to first strip him for warm clothing and afterwards munch on him for energy. Even worse is once he gets back to outpost, Colqhoun shows back up as Colonel Ives, and then he’s made to confront the cannibalism all over again. There’s this desperation in Boyd which I found Guy Pearce evokes INSANELY well. I honestly can feel the weakness in Captain Boyd just through the look in Pearce’s eyes, the way he breathes, the way he talks meek and mild; he comes across as a man not meant to be a solider, merely forced into it because that’s the way life was in those days. Remarkable performance on his part.
Robert Carlyle is one of those actors I’ve always enjoyed, from the moment I first saw The Full Monty and Trainspotting, I knew his talent was full of gifts. He can play so many different roles. Despite not being a man of huge stature, a skinny type of fellow, Carlyle has a command and intensity in him which makes him scary at times. This is why his role as Colqhoun/Colonel Ives works well for him, he can work well as a softer, gentler type like Colqhoun pretends to be, then once the Ives persona breaks out he’s a vicious, predatory animal with a coy edge. Having him play off Pearce is a match made in heaven, especially as the story progresses. Some of their later scenes – particularly the one where Boyd puts a knife to his throat as Martha then does the same to him – are just downright goosebumpy. Their energies are completely different and made the plot more intense for it; both Carlyle and Pearce give it all they’ve got here and without them the film wouldn’t be nearly as darkly charming.
Ives: “Y’know it’s not courage to resist me. It’s courage to accept me.”
The story of the Wendigo is something that’s interesting, as well. I love how the script explores the idea of manifest destiny through the perspective of cannibalism. I could go more and more into depth with all of that, but I don’t want to bore anyone. Mainly, I like how the aspect of cannibalism sort of takes on the form of a metaphor through which we view manifest destiny, the idea that American settlers were destined to expand throughout the continent. Colqhoun/Ives takes on that idea, as he hopes to spread the gift of cannibalism far and wide. He talks about how when spring comes, many people will be travelling to and from the outpost, through their grounds, so in the same way Americans in the 1800s (and some still today) believed their religion/ideals/et cetera would spread throughout the continent and become the way of life, Ives sees this as how cannibalism will also become the American Way.
And in a sense, cannibalism is the same as manifest destiny – the idea that one culture/group/way of living will effectively consume all and any others completely whole, barely stopping to chew or swallow. So I think Ted Griffin’s script is near genius. A really awesome metaphorical horror film that doesn’t HAVE to be taken as metaphor; there’s still a palpable, exciting plot and story involved.
Regarding film in general, Ravenous is in my top ten period pieces. Ever. Honestly, there’s so much to love about Bird’s film. You really feel as if you’re back in the late 1840s. Everything from the costuming, the facial hair, the locations and set pieces, all comes together to really make the period feel real.
The costumes and the makeup were spectacular. I found especially David Arquette, with his character’s rotten teeth and hygiene in general, looked good. That’s one of the best examples of the small makeup jobs which made the atmosphere work.
Added to the costumes and the makeup, the facial hair, all those little bits and pieces, Bird directs this film with grace. Not only that, the cinematography is UNREAL! Beautiful, dark, smooth. Anthony B. Richmond does the camerawork here and looking him up I’m amazed to see a few other titles I love in his resume: director of photography Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (one of my top 5 films), cinematography on Bad Timing, Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner, director of photography for Candyman, and more work as cinematographer for Bastard Out of Carolina, among more. So it’s no wonder the film has an impressive look; despite a few blemishes, I think Richmond has done incredible work on the titles I listed, particularly the work he’s done for Roeg. His look is a smooth yet textured style and I think that helps in many aspects with Ravenous, particularly when it comes to a lot of the exterior shots. One big part of why I love this film.
Finally, I have to mention the score a little bit. I’ll start by saying one half of the composing due here, Michael Nyman, has done a TON of wonderful work: the beautiful and wild documentary Man on Wire, The Libertine, Gattaca, Jane Campion’s The Piano, and some interesting work on films like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and A Zed & Two Noughts. Added to his already exciting talent, Ravenous also has the benefit of musician Damon Albarn being a part of the composing process. There is a ton of weird music here, but instead of taking away from the film it adds a very integral piece to the puzzle. While Albarn and Nyman could have easily gone for something more traditional – lots of strings and such or anything similar – they opted to bring a lot of different sounds into a mix that throws you off your guard. There are strings, harpsichords and such, there’s lots of horns, then we also get almost electronic sounds pumping out at times. It’s a massively extensive mix, somehow these two make it work. Their score is one of the most memorable film scores I’ve ever heard. It will ALWAYS stay with me and any time I think of innovative, fresh music in the movies I constantly come back to Albarn and Nyman here in Ravenous.
Antonia Bird’s Ravenous is hands down a 5 star film. While many might see it as simply a piece of historical fiction, horror added in for flavour, I think this movie has more than just one single promising aspect. There is a heavy dose of atmosphere from Bird in the directorial chair, along with Anthony B. Richmond at the camera’s helm – add to that several intense performances, a well-crafted script from Ted Griffin and a strangely beautiful score, and I don’t see how more people aren’t a fan of this masterpiece.
An unusual gem from the end of the ’90s, Ravenous may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For me, I get a dose of history, bits of legend from the Native tales of the Wendigo, as well as a MASSIVE injection of spookiness. Even a good helping of gore here and there amongst it all.
If you’t not yet experienced this film, or even any of Antonia Bird’s work, I suggest you get out and watch soon. She was an important director and it’s sad to see her pass away only barely into her sixties. Either way, she left us with some good movies to ponder over, and I’ll keep on watching Ravenous at least a handful of times every year. It’s that damn good.