Review: 'Ravenous' well done, but not really good
March 29, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Three times in the past week I mentioned to whoever couldn't get out of listening to me blab at them that I was set to cover the new cannibalism-for-fun-and-profit venture, "Ravenous." The movie's producers will be pleased to know that this news consistently provoked a response on the order of, "My God! Not that thing!"
So people knew what I was talking about. Omnipresent TV commercials had already made it abundantly clear to the general public that the film featured very bloody murder, people eating each other, vomiting, and David Arquette. As grotesque marketing schemes go, it was nearly enough to make you forget "Patch Adams."
Well, it turns out that "Ravenous" is bad, but not as bad as you expect it to be. That's not right, though. Actually, it's not bad in the way that you expect it to be. It's pretty stupid on the surface, that's for sure, something that you had to be prepared for if you saw those commercials. And it's seriously nauseating, though only in the dietary sense.
The surprise "saving" graces are a very sturdy cast and a musical score by Michael Nyman ("The Piano") and Damon Albarn that's as bizarrely fascinating as anything I've ever heard. Not since Carter Burwell alternated between a yodeler and Beethoven played on a banjo in "Raising Arizona" have I encountered so much wacky invention on one soundtrack.
The best I can do to describe it -- and it almost completely reinvents itself from scene to scene -- is to say that it most often sounds like a cross between Philip Glass electronica and a 1930s Western swing band. That's cool, but you don't just listen to movies; you also watch them. It's with the watching that "Ravenous" gets you into trouble.
Guy Pearce (looking not much like his crusading careerist in "L.A. Confidential") plays a Mexican-American war hero named Capt. John Boyd. Boyd is actually a coward, having feigned death during a gory battle only to find himself within enemy territory after he climbed out from underneath a pile of mutilated, blood-dripping soldiers. These chicken tactics enable him to single-handedly capture an encampment, and the brass has to ignore his inappropriate approach to warfare in order to save face.
So, they give him a medal and shuffle him off to an out-of-the-way Army outpost in the far reaches of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The outpost is populated by a collection of filthy crazies that would do any insane asylum proud. It was the often-amusing introduction to the various characters that had me hoping the movie would hold together as the piece of biting satire that director Antonia Bird so obviously wants it to be. No such luck, but it's fun for a while.
The nutcases include the nominal leader (Jeffrey Jones) who likes to read huge, boring tomes and certainly isn't equipped to negotiate such unforgiving terrain; a whispering religious zealot (Jeremy Davies, "Saving Private Ryan"'s resident coward); a drunk-as-hell veterinarian turned doctor (Stephen Spinella); and a cook (the previously mentioned Arquette) who laughs like a hyena, smokes "loco-weed," and gobbles peyote all day. (I'd just like to say that I've heard otherwise, but if Arquette has one ounce of talent in him, he's amazingly adept at hiding it.)
One day, a bloodied, battered man ("The Full Monty"'s Robert Carlyle) wanders into camp with a survivor's story that owes a great deal to the cannibalistic misadventures of the Donner Party. He tells the unsettling tale of how he and his traveling companions had to resort to munching down on each other when they became trapped in a snowstorm. Our heroes then decide to journey through the mountains to find the survivors, and Carlyle tags along to help out.
They find everybody, all right, except that they've all been trussed up and eaten (their gooey remains are lingered over as a yet another special treat for the audience). And Carlyle, it turns out, isn't battered at all. He's healthy as an ox, a murderous ox, and proceeds to variously chop and stab everyone in the search party into tender vittles, aside from Pearce, who gets away by jumping off a cliff, smashing through a bunch of trees, and tumbling bloodily down a mountainside.
When he makes it back to the camp, nobody believes his story, and that goes double when the newly appointed commanding officer shows up in the guise of ... Robert Carlyle, as the guy who started all this to begin with.
This is where I quit being interested because the movie quickly transforms itself from a pitch-black metaphor about overly zealous manifest destiny into a plain old horror movie, although an occasionally amusing one.
The idea is that Carlyle (as predicted by an Indian legend) takes over the souls of his mealtime victims, becoming more and more powerful each time he chows down on human beings. Pearce catches on to the trick and takes a taste himself. Then, we're privy to increasingly bloody confrontations between the two monsters.
It's all fairly sickening. As professionally made as the movie is, you have to wonder who they thought would come piling into the theater to see this. Teen-age horror fans won't care because none of the soldiers look remotely like Britney Spears -- there's not a belly-button ring in sight. Older folks might show up when they hear that the movie is actually a satire about the pioneer spirit, but they'll be disappointed once all the raw meat starts getting waved in their faces. And hard-core horror nerds (the kind who rent those grisly Italian splatter videos) will get antsy during what they perceive to be lots of extraneous character development.
As it is, this is the oddest "commercial" film that I've seen in years, one that's made by obviously talented people who are either slumming it or just terribly misguided. It seems purposefully designed to become a cult film, and will probably find an audience when it gets to video. Just try not to eat anything before you give it a go.
I couldn't start to convey how vile a lot of "Ravenous" is. You don't just get dead people; you get dead people who've been gutted, dried, and peeled. Blood drips and gushes throughout, and even an undercooked steak that you see at the beginning of the film is shot is such a way as to send you heading for the toilets. It's one crazy-ass movie, and it's pretty startling that I liked it at all. But I did. Sort of. Rated R. 103 minutes.
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