Not quite a western, not quite a vampire thriller, Ravenous is certainly one of the more singular movies of the new movie year, however unsatisfying. You can add it to the short list of studio films (Alive, The Silence of the Lambs, Soylent Green) where cannibalism plays a key role, which doesn't exactly make it appetizing to a wide audience. Here, that big taboo is seasoned with an Indian myth called Weendigo, which claims that flesh-eating gives you the strength and spirit of your victim. Virtually no one in the cast gets away unscathed (or uneaten) in this bizarre mix of black comedy, frontier adventure, political metaphor and grisly horror.
Much of the movie is seen through the eyes of Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), whose cowardice in the Mexican-American War causes him to be assigned to a remote military outpost in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. Soon after Boyd's arrival, a bedraggled, half-dead Scotsman named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) appears. Upon his recovery, Colqhoun gives a chilling account of being snowbound with a group of settlers who resorted to cannibalism to survive, and how he barely escaped the expedition's demented leader, Colonel Ives. The base's commanding officer, Hart (Jeffrey Jones), organizes a search party, and the soldiers discover that Colqhoun is the real cannibal in question. The wild-eyed Scot slaughters everyone but Boyd, who leaps from a cliff and makes it back to the safety of the fort. Or so he thinks. Colqhoun also returns, this time in the guise of Colonel Ives, who begins feeding on the remaining members of the outpost. Adding an interesting twist is the fact that Boyd has also now partaken of the flesh in his quest to survive, and discovered firsthand the restorative powers of dining on your fellow man.
A distant cousin to the vampire movie, Ravenous pits a supernatural true believer (Colqhoun) against a reluctant convert to the flesh-eating fraternity (Boyd). There are the makings of a truly original horror pic here, but director Antonia Bird's film is somewhat a victim of its own glossiness-it's too arty for the genre gang, and too grim for the art crowd, and its tone wavers uncertainly between quirky comedy and blunt violence. Ted Griffin's screenplay also makes a rather forced connection between the cannibalism theme and America's 1800s belief in Manifest Destiny-at one point, Colqhoun makes a speech about how the country 'wants to be whole, stretching out its arms and consuming all it can.'
But those with a taste, so to speak, for something different will find some entertainment value here. Bird and company create an amusing portrait of the riffraff who populate the army base, and Anthony B. Richmond's crisp wide-screen photography nicely captures the desolation of their surroundings. The versatile Carlyle (The Full Monty, Trainspotting) has a field day playing the voracious Colqhoun, while Pearce (L.A. Confidential) suffers nobly as the hard-luck Boyd. Jeffrey Jones is droll as the cynical camp commander, who makes a surprise return appearance. Director Bird has some trouble establishing spatial relationships between characters in the first big bloodletting sequence, but she does stage a remarkable action set-piece involving Boyd's hair-raising (and bone-crunching) escape from that high cliff. A very idiosyncratic music score by Michael Nyman (who also worked on the cannibal-themed The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) and Damon Albarn also brings distinction to this decidedly offbeat studio release.