Film Review: Consuming Spirits

The most creative film of the year: a striking, one-of-a-kind, hilarious dystopian epic of animated weirdness.

A much darker, much funnier variation of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, Chris Sullivan’s Consuming Spirits is a work of twisted genius. Filmed over a period of 15 years, painstakingly created frame by frame, utilizing elaborately layered multi-plane cutout animation and drawings on paper, no animated film has ever looked like this, or possessed so much richly evocative visual density.

It takes place in a rustbelt Appalachian town, Magguson, and is peopled by three spectacularly dolorous main characters. Earl Gray is the eccentrically somnolent-sounding voice on his radio program, “Gardeners’ Corners.” Gentian Violet does paste-up work for the local paper, The Daily Suggester, and lives with her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother Ida, who torments her with her obscenely inappropriate rantings. Her on-and-off-again love interest is Victor Blue, an alcoholic co-worker whose life is described as “a terminal social-service project.” Gentian and Violet have formed an amateur Irish musical duo, The Shalelies (“Homespun originals with Celtic standards”) and listlessly perform at the local dive, the Juice of the Barley, to which everyone repairs to drown the untold mountains of sorrow in their lives.

The keeningly sad Gaelic tunes which The Shalelies perform rather set the tone for this blacker-than-black comedy, which is often sidesplittingly hilarious, even as it unsettles you. Sullivan has a gleefully spiteful writing talent, evinced in Gray’s ultra-droll radio commercials, lauding food products which enhance the flavor of “each masticated segment” or the unseemly headlines which often land Gentian and Victor in hot water with their long-suffering editor (“Gentian Violet Admits Concealing Nun Under Solitary Faggot”). The film is full of salutary, very funny blasts at the Catholic Church, with the local outpost, The Sisters of the Holy Order of the Evacuated Sepulcher, headed by Reverend Mother Mary Elastica, a special target, with signs that read “Prayers are not gratis” and advertising for nuns with “Unknown women preferred.”

Sullivan, using his own social-service childhood, has concocted a plot of Byzantine complexity in which long-concealed ties between the characters are revealed, along with a plethora of eerie secrets. A true life’s labor of love, Consuming Spirits may be a bit extended with a too self-indulgent final movement, but there’s no denying there’s a major, singular artist at work here. The visuals are quite extraordinary throughout, like nothing you’ve ever seen in animation, and it’s astonishing how many real chuckles and surreally subconscious elements—which could only be achieved by the fiendishly clever use of this medium—Sullivan manages to interweave.