Movie Review – Ravenous (1999)
by NIR SHALEV
Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is a coward. During a bloody battle in the Mexican-American War he hides beneath the corpses of his comrades and awaits the opportune moment to strike. He overtakes the enemy commander and wins the battle for the Americans. He earns the Medal of Honor, but his superiors are aware of the “true” nature of his victory.
They exile him to an outpost located in the Sierra Nevadas so he could remain there in solitude to ponder his shameful existence. There he meets Colonel Hart (Jeffery Jones), the boss; Private Cleaves (David Arquette), the moron and cook; Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies), the religious naïf; Private Reich (Neil McDonough), the psyched soldier; and Knox (Stephen Spinella), the drunkard.
A priest named F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) shows up at the cabin one night and passes out outside. Once the troupe revives him he proceeds to tell them the tale of the party he had traveled with. They had surrendered to the wintry storms and had tried to seek shelter within a cave. When they ran out of food and oxen to eat they had begun to eat one another. And that when a certain Colonel Ives had begun eating sparingly he, Colqhoun, had ran away until he had come across the troupe in their outpost. Col. Hart decides to search for the remaining party and the troupe packs and gears up. After arriving at their destination, Boyd finds out that Colqhoun had lied to them: he is the cannibalistic Ives. From there on the story shifts into the next gear, propelling a battle of wills between Boyd and Colqhoun-Ives.
Ravenous is a tale of the darkness of human nature and of overcoming adversity, even if it means to personally become inhuman and to perform immoral deeds in order to remain alive. The Algonquian myth of Windigo is applied to this film with a supernatural approach. It claims that when man eats the flesh of another, he steals the victim’s essence and strength. Those who feed will physically become stronger and all their illnesses will vanish, but the hunger will worsen all the time until it becomes insatiable; ravenous. Colqhoun-Ives managed to travel for months without having to eat because of the amount of people he had consumed in the past and Boyd must do the same in order to remain alive and strike back at him, if he’s got the guts.
Therefore, a moral dilemma appears before Boyd. Does he succumb to temptation and fight off Colqhoun-Ives, tainting his soul further, or does he starve himself to death and redeem his immortal soul? Boyd is as pale as a ghost and truly is a coward, but he is presented with the opportunity to change his bad habits. Ravenous is a violent film, filled with blood and guts and metaphoric monsters. Inhumanity eats at the soul and requires even the protagonist to succumb to evil.
The locales are gorgeous and the cinematography is top notch. Then again nature is already there, it’s simply a matter of framing it appropriately. But director Antonia Bird manages to take snowy mountain ranges and fill them with dread and a feeling of isolation. Such open spaces can sometimes cause claustrophobia because outrunning one’s demons is never a simple task. Especially when that demon is incarnate and he wants to eat you. It’s frightening just thinking about it.
The soundtrack to the film is composed of symphonic orchestrations and clunky ragtime, a fantastically chilling sound. Banjos, violins, and deep bass beats create a dark feeling in our stomachs and we feel like we were transported back 150 years, to a darker, more primitive period in American history.
Watching actors battle one another in great movies is always a pleasure and here it is no exception. In John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), John Travolta and Nicholas Cage play an FBI agent and a mass murderer who are constantly hunting one another. Once, due to strange circumstances, they switch bodies and faces and then the fun really begins. When asked who was more fun to watch, everybody’s answer differs because Travolta is an excellent bad guy as much as Cage is. In Ravenous, Boyd is constantly running from Colqhoun-Ives for fear of being eaten alive, but succumbs in his turn to what has made his enemy powerful and ravenous; survival is the only option. They chase each other until one of them dies.
Guy Pearce plays a man who has tasted human blood and flesh and yet he is afraid of Colqhoun-Ives more than he is afraid of his dark nature. Boyd is pale and skinny and shivers due to his growing insatiable Windigo lust. Robert Carlyle plays Colqhoun-Ives in a menacing way and he pulls it off so well that he actually becomes entertaining to watch. He lusts for adventure and for the chase, and, scary enough, he seems to be completely of a rational mind. I cannot decide which performance I enjoyed more because they are both fantastic to watch.
This film is a must-see for movie lovers who are not squeamish because there’s a great story, one that approaches morality with a nasty twist. And to those who cannot stand the sight of blood: director Antonia Bird is a vegetarian. Images of bloody steaks and human soups evoke disgust within us but if she can handle it then so can we. Ravenous will take a bite out of you and you won’t be able to forget it for a long time to come.