Undermarked Oversights: Ravenous

It's not too surprising that a film like Ravenous, a morbidly dark horror-comedy about cannibalism in the snowy expanses of 1800s California, might suffer from some production issues while under studio control. Cycling through directors while undergoing casting issues and dissatisfaction with the day-to-day output, it's probably a minor miracle that director Antonia Bird rallied the troops enough to get this thing out for the public eye, despite the many hands -- including the studio's -- dragging it in different directions. Even more remarkable is the fact that Ravenous, perhaps by a stroke of luck, ultimately ends up being a oddly mesmerizing piece of work that brushes against the fabric of morality and mortality, reveling in an outlandish tone as it takes a few twisted, albeit predictable, turns through the Sierra Nevada wilderness. Its raw, unsettling personality overcomes a host of imperfections and evidence of creative differences, justifying the cult following it has developed since its disappointing critical and commercial reception upon release.

After a not-so-valiant commandment decision during the Mexican-American War leads to him being both celebrated for his actions and reprimanded for his lack of mettle, Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce, Animal Kingdom) finds himself essentially "exiled" to the remote, depressingly frigid Fort Spence in the California mountains. A skeleton crew keeps the rusty compound running, filled with troops who can barely manage their duties: a wobbly young priest (Jeremy Davies), a veterinary doctor (Stephen Spinella) as their physician, one overzealous soldier (Neal McDonough) ... and, among others, David Arquette (Scream) as a baked and giggly lout. One evening, shortly after Boyd arrives, a starving and skittish man, F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle, Trainspotting) stumbles onto their doorstep, spinning a tale about his group of travelers that ends in starvation, violence, and ultimately cannibalism out of desperation. As they get to know the wanderer a little better, however, traveling with him to his campsite while timidly discussing the Algonquin mythology of the Wendigo, they soon learn that he's not a lick of what he's made himself out to be.

From the moment Boyd, brooding and wide-eyed, cautiously steps into Colonel Hart's (Jeffrey Jones, The Devil's Advocate) office to report for "duty", Ravenous establishes an strange, off-kilter atmosphere that's built on how the shell-shocked captain adjusts to the isolation and oddness of Fort Spencer's troops. The photography from Don't Look Now cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond eerily tracks the soldiers' movement around their rickety, inhospitable surroundings, while a twisted and tonally complex score from Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman gives Boyd's acclimation to his new circumstances a playfully ominous attitude. Merely walking the grounds of the fort gives off a certain vibe even before Colqhoun arrives, but the outsider's tale of consuming human flesh quickly spikes the blood-curdling mood, leaving you uncertain of what to think of the self-proclaimed cannibal and what he'll do in the presence of living men. That tension escalates as they venture into the forest, setting up a quick increase in the film's horror as the music teases those watching with its tone, such as when upbeat folk music plays during a harrowing death.

Unsettling and macabre twists happen early on in Ravenous, making it a little tricky to discuss beyond a certain point to preserve its semi-surprises. It's relatively safe to say that Boyd himself ends up in his own state of desperation while fleeing from cannibalistic threats, where the film descends into raw horror as he, an insecure soldier and sad excuse for a war hero, stumbles through the Sierra Nevada as prey. It's around this time, too, that the story takes an overtly supernatural and somewhat unexpected turn given the practical setting, materializing the film's interest in the fable of the "wendigo" -- cannibals who magically absorb the strength of the beings they eat -- into a mystical plot shift that's reminiscent of the metaphysical territory of vampirism. The script from Ted Griffin doesn't solely use the other-worldly physical benefits as a device, though: once it's introduced, the characters who partake directly address the moral boundaries (and religious comparisons) in delightfully overwrought dramatic scenes, even if they're not really unlike something you'd find in an Anne Rice novel.

While Ravenous presents Guy Pearce in his first big role after emerging on the mainstream Hollywood scene with L.A. Confidential, and only a few years before his "star-making" role in Memento, Boyd's purpose becomes to stoically react and mold to Robert Carlyle's intense, almost-grandiose projection of Colqhoun, leaving him mostly as a hollowed-out background observer at first. Carlyle takes his character's gruesome monologues and elevates then with piercing, alert glances and a distressingly confident tone, which can look appealing in the destitute surroundings of Fort Spencer, especially in the eyes of a soldier who endured a demoralizing and cowardly event in a war. It's only later on, after enduring the pursuit through the mountains, that Pearce gets the chance to unleash his own frenzied talents as Boyd plummets into justifiable paranoia. While there's an air of predictability and unlikelihood about the scenario -- namely, whether people could recognize a man simply without his beard -- the film becomes captivating once the prospect of eating human flesh gets dangled in front of a tortured Boyd's nose.

That energy between Pearce and Carlyle lingers all the way until the film's ending, continuing in the fort's halls with its grisly musings about morality and the hunger for power, while tapping into a vein of exceptionally dark humor where even the sipping of a stew might make your stomach turn while being amused at what's going on. Ravenous does reach a few points that stretch the boundaries of suspension of disbelief with the magical enhancements of the Wendigo Diet: rapid and seamless healing, resistance to trauma, and the ability to fend off death opportunely keep things moving along with an elevated pulse. They also add spice to the story as it approaches a tense finale, though, notably within a brawl between two wendigos and a window for Boyd to get redemption for his missed opportunity at bravery during the war. It's a bizarre and well thought-out blend of good-time gore and straight-faced contemplation, ultimately leading this troubled production into much more intriguing territory than it probably had any right to be in.

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