2nd Lt. John Boyd is a hero of the Mexican-American War–but Boyd’s commanding officer knows his dark secret: his act of heroism was born from an act of cowardice. For this, Boyd is “rewarded” with exile the remote Fort Spencer in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Shortly after Boyd arrives and meets the fort’s eccentric staff, another stranger arrives: a Scottish pioneer named Colqhoun, whose wagon train became stranded in the mountains. As the travelers’ situation became more desperate, the party’s guide–one Col. Ives–induced them to turn to cannibalism to stay alive. But when a team is sent out to investigate Colqhoun’s claims, it turns out that the traveler isn’t entirely what he seems. Boyd and his fellow soldiers are about to become familiar with the Wendigo, a mythical cannibal spirit from Native American legendry…
Ravenous starts off with two epigrams. The first is Nietzche’s familiar quotation regarding the care that “he who fights monsters” must take. The second is even more familiar, and is credited simply to “anonymous”: “Eat me.” To drive the point home, it’s accompanied by a distinctly comical sound effect.
It’s obvious from this moment that Ravenous is going to be informed by a strong streak of gallows humor, but the film never properly balances that horror with the grim and grisly subject manner. It’s not simply a horror movie with jokes (as is Hatchet), nor is it simply a dark comedy about cannibalism (as is Parents).
More than anything, it seems like a project that’s being pulled in too many directions by too many people behind the camera. The storytelling is largely more serious than jokey, despite a couple of comic-relief characters (Pvt. Cleaves, the token stoner) and occasionally quippy dialogue (particularly from Colqhoun, including the memorable line “If you die first, I am definitely gonna eat you”). And director Antonia Bird’s visual sense is highly effective, oozing atmosphere from every pore, and keeping the viewer unsettled and uncomfortable even when there isn’t blood or gore onscreen.
But other elements of the execution aren’t quite as effective. The casting of the two primary roles is brilliant. Guy Pearce brings a squirrely, Ichabod Crane-esque vibe to Boyd; Robert Carlyle takes Colqhoun–who easily could have been a run-of-the-mill quip-killer–and fashions him into one of the most effective villains of the era, even when he’s cracking wise.
The supporting cast isn’t as strong. Jeffrey Jones (the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) plays the fort’s commander, Col. Hart, in a manner that’s a bit more comedic than required (although he really nails it in the one scene where it really counts). Jeremy Davies (Solaris, Lost, Justified), as Pvt. Toffler, puts the sort of performance he’s best known for–twitchy and quirky–but he takes it too far over the top and is hard to take seriously. David Arquette applies the token stoner treatment to Cleaves and gives the character no depth whatsoever.
Another major factor in the production’s inability to keep a consistent mood and tone is the score, composed by two of the last people you’d expect to compose music for a movie like this: Michael Nyman (composer of experimental orchestral music and art-film scores) and Blur frontman/Gorillaz musical mastermind Damon Albarn. What they deliver is all over the map. On some occasions it’s the creepiest and most effective horror score this side of Bernard Hermann; at other times, it’s gratingly quirky. (Occasionally it’s both, such as in the scene at the cave.) One thing it almost never is, is subtle, and it puts a lot of effort into reminding the audience that it’s there and it wants your attention.
For all its unevenness, Ravenous is definitely enjoyable. But I also can’t shake the feeling that it could have been improved immensely with a stronger commitment to one path (gory and bleak horror) or another (satire).
My rating: 7 out of 10.
101 minutes. Directed by Antonia Byrd. Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, David Arquette, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones.