Movie Review: Ravenous (1999)


Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from netflix.

After a display of cowardice that accidentally lands him a promotion and a medal during the Mexican-American War, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is assigned to an isolated military outpost in the rugged mountains of northern California. His fellow soldiers are all outcasts- inept, drunk, and/or wild- so he resigns himself to a quiet life of seclusion while he continues to process his battlefield trauma. One night, a half-crazed man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) wanders into their fort with a story of his traveling party stranded in the mountains at the mercy of a cannibalistic colonel. Boyd and his commanding officer, Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), lead a small party to the cave where Colqhoun says he and the others were forced to eat fallen men to stay alive during a prolonged storm. But upon their arrival, they realize that nothing is what it seems, and in a fight for survival Boyd must question his own sanity.

I first heard about this movie several months ago, when director Antonia Bird passed away from cancer and a lot of film writers were coming out to talk about it. Still passionately endeavoring to watch tons of horror films, I held Ravenous as a priority, especially as it’s one of the few I knew of directed by a woman. Turns out it’s also one of the most impeccable horror-thrillers I’ve seen. It’s the kind of film best watched without knowing too much about it, I think, so you might be best served to go watch it right now before reading ahead, I may get a little spoilery.

It starts out as a sort of wartime-tragedy-by-way-of-black-comedy, with Boyd suffering from memories of his experiences sneaking over enemy lines by playing dead and then being buried in a heap of his fallen comrades, their blood literally dripping into his mouth. His introduction to Fort Spencer is a comical turn, as he silently meets a host of misfits- including Cutest Man™ Jeremy Davies as a shy vicar, David Arquette stretching his acting range as a dude who’s always high, Neal McDonough as a violent loner, and Joseph Runningfox and Sheila Tousey as Native American siblings who act as guides. Their exile is reminiscent of the premise of Father Ted, and seems ripe for semi-depressing humorous hijinks. However, the sudden appearance of Robert Carlyle’s character results in numerous twists and turns, including an unexpected mythological element as well as a heavy dose of mind-fuckery. The tension builds so perfectly and the gore levels rise exponentially, all while maintaining a note of dark humor, it’s just superb.

Bloody and brutal in many ways, Ravenous is captivating for its bizarre plot twists and scene-stealing performance from Carlyle, who seems to delight in his own mischievousness. One of the greatest successes of the film is its final twist, which forces Boyd to question his sanity and memory, while also facing his own growing bloodlust. It is structured in such a way that the audience is unsure whether the earlier events of the story were real, or if Boyd is some kind of maniacal unreliable narrator. The visual aesthetic is a study in contrasts- warm red blood against cold white snow, piles of food against Boyd’s gaunt, starved face, an untameable mountain wilderness against man’s attempt to establish markers of Western civilization. The food imagery is of course plentiful, with Boyd flashing back to his commanding officer’s blood dripping into his mouth every time he sees a steak. Bird does not hold back on the violence, displaying mutilated skeletons, gooey innards, bones shooting out of shins, and a totally intense climactic battle. Through it all we hear the remarkable score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman, which blends multiple moods and genres, shifting from old-timey Southern banjos and Native American chanting to distorted guitars and orchestral interludes. It lends the film a timeless aspect despite its clear 1840s trappings, and helps set the eerie tone.

Basically everything about this movie is good, from the gripping performances, unpredictable script, gross-out gore, historic references, and beautiful wintry mountain settings. I was really proud of myself for eating dinner during this movie and not losing my appetite. But then perhaps I have a bit of the old cannibal drive in me. Uh oh.


Pair This Movie With: Nineteenth-century cannibals lost in the mountains? Naturally I thought of Trey Parker’s feature debut, Cannibal! The Musical, which would make for a nice light follow-up after you’re stomach’s been churned around during Ravenous.

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