Sunday, July 10, 2011

Shootout at High Noon: Ravenous

Ravenous (1999, Antonia Bird)
*Caution: while the author does his best not to reveal everything in the film under review today, certain significant plot points are revealed for the sake of properly formulating thoughts and ideas for discussion. The reader has received a fair warning.
There is deconstruction and then there is doing something different with something familiar. In the realm of film, both ideas share a lot of common ground, but nonetheless remain separate entities and ways of sharing stories. A deconstruction of the western genre would involve explicit use of familiar tropes, signature ingredients which the majority of film lovers recognize as part of the genre...and tossing them upside down to create something new. Then there is what Antiona Bird attempts in her 1999 effort, Ravenous, in which she loosely uses the western genre to develop a tale of dark deeds and courage. The use of the term ‘loosely’ was intentional, for other than a few period decorations and mentions of a major event that helped shape the United States into what it is (the reference to significant, United States-building, historical events being a popular tool in westerns), there is not much here for the film to feel truly at home in the genre. But that is a matter of semantics. More importantly, how is the movie?

Captain Boyd (Guy Pierce) is a recently decorated hero for his efforts in the Mexican-American War. In a very harsh early scene, Boyd feels uncomfortable while at a dinner table with fellow soldiers who are all munching on slabs of bloody meat. The Captain pants, leaves the table and vomits somewhere outside. Boyd’s admired celebrity status immediately comes to an end when it is discovered that his ability to overcome a Mexican stronghold was mainly out of cowardice, which also resulted in the preventable (relatively speaking) deaths of compatriots in arms. For this, he is ‘banished’ to an outpost in some odd region of California where it actually snows. The small fort is manned by only a few characters, among them Hart (Jeffrey Jones), Toffler Jeremy Davies) and Cleaves (David Arquette). One night a stranger (Robert Carlyle) appears out of cold who reveals a tale of how his party got lost in the mountains and were forced into cannibalism. The stranger explains that the most dangerous person of his former party is still alive in the cave where they dwelled during the winter, and so the men gather up their weapons to deal with the situation first hand...
There is little doubt, even from the opening, that Ravenous is cut from a different cloth. While there may very well be elements that hark back to what we commonly refer to as the western genre, Antonia Bird’s picture goes for a grisly tone more often than any other film in the marathon, including The Proposition. In fact, I am not entirely certain that little assessment was accurate. Is Ravenous grisly? It is really kind of funny in many instances, playing on the audiences with one of the oldest tricks in the cinema tool bag: don’t just scare the audience, let them have a good time as well. Bird, whose work mainly consists of television productions, fashions a strange film which, while not an outright farce, definitely alleviates some of the potential stress associated with harder core gore horror films by taking some stabs at dark humour. Take for example the sequence when the stranger reveals himself to be the monstrous cannibal. His insatiable hunger gets the better of him, propelling him to attack some of the men who are standing outside the cave where the horrors occurred. Clearly, this was an opportunity for things to get really intense and dark, tonally speaking. It is not that what follows is not intense (it is to a degree), but director Bird is also having a lot of fun with the opportunity to share such a horrendous oddity of a story. From the moment the soldiers’ Native American companion warns them of what might come by revealing a mythic tale of Man gaining strength by eating other people, any attentive and movie-informed viewer knows that not everything here is going to be terribly serious. 

Bird understands that amusement, albeit unabashedly schlocky amusement, can be extracted from the tale, and nowhere is this better exemplified in than Robert Carlyle’s performance. The actor puts a phenomenal show as the cannibal who pretends to be other people, buying his time before the right moment to joyfully strike his next victims. Some will almost certainly find this mixture of tones off-putting. This is a man who has embraced what virtually any normal human being in the world should consider to be evil. Eating other humans when your stranded in the middle of nowhere in the wintertime and after the other have died off is one thing (although something I have trouble imagining myself giving in to), but just gleefully hacking away at people to munch on them? The film tries to back it all up with the Native tale about consuming one’s strength when eating another, but it felt like much of the movie’s driving force was with Carlyle’s lively performance. This man is having fun doing terrible things. His character is nimbler, sneakier and more skilled than most of the people he encounters, in addition to the fact that he possesses the element of surprise: nobody knows he is the cannibal, other than Captain Boyd, but the latter’s reputation is so tarnished already that everyone refuses to believe him. 

Speaking of Captain Boyd and in particular the actor playing the role, Guy Pierce, there was a sudden fear on my part early on in the movie when it seemed as though the actor was being given the same type of role as in The Proposition, where he was essentially a stand-in for the audience with no strong personality or character arc. What the film eventually does with his character Boyd is quite effective however , in how they play up with the fact that he is cowardly to an extent and must muster any sort of courage to defeat an enemy. There is reference to him having morals, and therefore the notion of eating another human’s flesh repulses him. Carlyle’s cannibal edges him on continuously, explaining that no courage exists in challenging, but rather in joining. Antonia Bird takes the notion of the hero’s journey, or the story of a man who needed to become a hero, and turns it inside out. To finally be driven by any sort of courage, Boyd must do as the antagonist does. Regular heroics are not on the menu today. In other words, being strong meant being amoral, which is a fun concept for this movie.
Once the film ended, wrestling with what the movie was trying to get at proved difficult for a bit. Near the beginning, the story only explains how what the cannibal is doing is in reference to an old Native American legend. Certain supernatural and spiritual elements are at stake since whomever happens to be injured or sic and eats human flesh subsequently feels revived and stronger than before. But, as discussed above, morality comes into play, especially morality as found in courage. Boyd was a coward all along as the movie professes, and suddenly his one opportunity to be strong involves something detestable. By end, when he and Carlyle are lying on the floor in a pool of their own blood, the villain once again challenges the hero. If the hero dies first, there is no question that the cannibal shall eat him and walk again. Should the villain survive, will Boyd give in to the temptation (oddly enough, cannibalism is treated a bit like vampirism in the movie)? Of course, Boyd does still have a sense of nobility and morals, and so chooses not to eat his foe, preferring to die as a normal a man as he can be at that point. The notion of morality is tossed around a lot in this movie, and while it makes for great scenes, maybe it is not as focussed as I would have liked. There is a large stretch where it seemed like Antonia Bird is being deliciously cynical, but then plays it safe at the last moment. Without mentioning him, there is another character earlier on who also gives in to the temptation, so we know that anybody can be converted. I felt there was an opportunity to really seal the deal, but it did no ruin for film.
This review is fast approaching the ‘too long’ point and there is so much more to say, like how appropriate the score is. Let us end it so: Ravenous is definitely a must-see for horror fans, in particular those who can stomach some gore.  It is a feast for those who enjoy a bit of the macabre and is a mouth-watering opportunity of discovery for those who have never heard of it. Yum, I’m hungry...

Done here? Find out how many finger licking good  'chicken wings' Bill ate this past weekend at his Movie Emporium


Anonymous said...

Sounds like you enjoyed Ravenous but had trouble digesting certain aspects of the movie just like I did.

edgarchaput said...

@Bill: I think I was more kind to the movie then you. You didn't seem all that enamoured with the second half, whereas for me it was really only what Antonia Bird does in the final few moments that troubled me. Much of what I analyze in the review, how Captain Boyd discovers courage, occurs in the second half.

hels said...

Great review, an interesting take on it. I have to admit it never occurred to me to ponder the film too hard. And that's saying something cos I'll over analyse what font is used for the credits - I'm an overanalyser, but I just really enjoyed Ravenous. Probably the clever choice of collaborators on the score and, as you noted, the cast are a big part of that. I kind of like everyone in it, and I find it kind of funny how the frontiersman take on the parasitic genre has influence so many other films even though it's a bit niche :p