Note: I wrote a short entry about Ravenous two years ago, when I showed it to the rest of the Fuck, Yeah! Film Festival crew at our then-yearly No Sleep October marathon. It is my favorite horror movie, and two years later I have more to say about it. Particularly this year.
Winter. 1847. There are 28 stars — four rows of seven — on the American flag. The United States is at war with Mexico to legitimize Texas, the most recent addition. It’s going pretty well for the Americans. Then-President James K. Polk will later be remembered for annexing much of the American Southwest. Within 10 years, there will be a half-dozen more stars, thanks in part to westward settlers. Soon after that, the country’s social seams will tear — leading to a bloody Civil War that pulls in men of all stripes, led by officers whose teeth were cut in the Mexican-American conflict. To anyone paying attention, that new war was already brewing on the horizon.
John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is an unassuming infantryman fighting in Mexico who accidentally becomes a “hero” after singlehandedly capturing an entire enemy encampment. Only Captain Slauson (John Spencer) knows that Boyd’s burst of courage came after laying down on the battlefield, hiding among his slaughtered friends. He played dead. And only Boyd knows his burst of courage was a result of his compatriot’s blood dripping into his throat. To the military, Boyd is a coward. If it wouldn’t hurt morale, they’d execute him for treason. Boyd’s experience amongst the dead leaves him averse to meat and traumatized, barely able to discuss his feats for propaganda purposes.
Boyd is then shipped off to Fort Spencer, a Californian outpost “inherited” from the Spanish high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. In the spring and summer, Spencer is a way station for pioneers seeking fortunes. But winter brings utter desolation. “This place thrives on tedium,” says Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones), whose office is filled with classics and philosophical treatises, and who uses his thick tomes to enlighten his soul and / or smash walnuts as a snack.
Hart introduces Boyd to the half-dozen men and the sole woman manning the compound. Reich (Neal McDonough) is an overly aggressive soldier. Toffler (Jeremy Davies) is a sheepish chaplain who can’t string a sermon together, an innocent. Martha (Sheila Tousey) and George (Joseph Running Fox) are Native American siblings and scouts. Cleaves (David Arquette) is “constantly medicated” with weed while Major Knox (Stephen Spinella) takes his treatment for the blues in liquid form. One wonders how such a sorry cast of misfits ended up in the ass-end of nowhere, but it’s hard to imagine them fitting into the military any other way. Boyd’s “promotion” to Fort Spencer makes him third in command. Nobody seems to care.
Certainly not Boyd. He watches winter set in, the snow falling deep over the camp. Days pass. He barely speaks. Haunted by memories of his captain’s blood choking him and the strength he took from it. Just as Hart starts to break down his new officer’s shell, a mysterious traveler appears, freezing and close to hypothermia. This traveler, F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), relays tales of cannibalism and debauchery to the Fort Spencer sad sacks before begging for their help to rescue his stranded fellow travelers, who have taken refuge from the cold a few days away. Hart rallies a search party to follow Colqhoun immediately. It’s the right thing to do. Finally, some action for the lost souls of Fort Spencer.
Unfortunately for everyone at Fort Spencer, their souls aren’t the only item on the menu.
Ravenous is a Weird Western and a weird Western. Unlike earlier horror Westerns in this year’s No Sleep October series, Vampires or A Girl Walks Alone Home at Night, Ravenous isn’t content to celebrate or deconstruct the genre. It just takes the piss out of it. Or blood, rather.
There is no steely hero here. Boyd is, at best, an average man. He has little backstory. He’s disquieted and depressed. His only past hobby, he tells Hart, was swimming. We’re not sure if it’s a joke, but given the situation it’s a sad either way. Before the military, Boyd could’ve been anyone — the unwanted third son of a farmer from the Midwest or a wealthy scion who had joined the military with delusions of grandeur but found his stomach wanting. We never really learn anything about Boyd before his decisive moment to lay down in the dirt of a bloody battlefield and welcome the release of death. He’s a nobody.
I’ve written about a handful of Pearce’s performances in the My Guy series. This is my favorite turn of them all. In the hands of another actor, Boyd could go too much in either direction — an unlikable coward or too take-charge and secretly brave. Pearce knows Boyd is an unspectacular, haunted man who wants to be as far from the action as possible. Everything about Boyd is communicated by Pearce with glances, grunts, and a fundamental awkwardness. Although the main character, Boyd has no spoken lines for the first twenty-five minutes of the story. He’s not exactly a chatterbox from that point forward.
Boyd lacks the nerve to commit suicide, but Pearce’s demeanor makes it clear he thinks about it, but lacks the courage to follow through. His cowardice is sympathetic and almost childish. Despite being a soldier, even holds his gun nervously.
One of the most common tropes in Western storytelling is a hero against a system, be it criminal, corporate or colonial. The hero’s actions speak to larger cultural ideas – rebellion against the system by the individual becomes a statement about what the culture at large values, even as the system persists in reality. The moral statement is clear (whether or not said morals are necessarily practices by the hero).
Fundamentally there is an idea that good people can right wrongs larger than themselves. Or at least represent that idea. Ravenous doesn’t embrace that ethos.
“Manifest Destiny,” Colqhoun says. “This country is seeking to be whole, stretching out its arms and consuming all it can.” The greed and excess of American expansion will feed Colqhoun and whomever chooses to join him in making Fort Spencer the cannibal capital of California. The war with Mexico is only the most egregious example of bloodshed on the frontier of American expansion. If blood is being spilled, why shouldn’t the cannibals get a little for themselves? They are, after all, just living the dream.
Boyd’s choices throughout the movie are not guided by any interest in what that idea means. He either fights or flights from danger, guided by his own survival. When he finally gins up the courage to fight back it only arrives on the heels of resistance, capitulation, and despair. He’s no hero.
The cannibals in Ravenous are given a virility through their consumption of human flesh, in a play off the Wendigo creature form Native American folklore. In fact, Colqhoun’s transition from sick Scottish immigrant into a man capable of dispatching an entire company of troops takes place after a Native American scout tells him the story and then properly becomes the cannibal’s first meal. Within the context of the story, the superhuman strength of Boyd and his subsequent cohort is a physical reality. Allegorically, it also says something about the appropriation by colonizing forces that they identify the story as the Wendigo, and they pervert its use for their own ends.
Within the larger piss-take on the mythology of America’s Manifest Destiny is the romance between Boyd and Colqhoun, which feels authentic to the way men engage in violence for the affirmation of other men. Colqhoun wants Boyd’s approval. He needs a partner. Carlyle’s dynamic performance perfectly pairs with Pearce’s sullen protagonist. He gaslights, tempts and ultimately begs Boyd to become his partner. Boyd has tasted human flesh and felt the power it can hold; with a partner, Colqhoun believes his plan for Fort Spencer would be much more achievable. As another character says: “It’s lonely being a cannibal. Making friends is tough.”
Honestly, Ravenous makes a good double-feature with the all-timer gay cannibal TV series Hannibal. You can call it a bromance if that makes you feel more comfortable, but I think it’s fair to see Colqhoun threatening to eat Boyd — as they lay crushed together in a giant bear trap after their final battle — as a little homoerotic.
Martha, the only woman in the film, witnesses their final confrontation and decides to just leave Fort Spencer before more men arrive. Good for her.
Ravenous was not well-received upon its release in 1999. Its mixture of bleak comedy and glorious gore-drenched horror seemed to miff audiences. The production experience was difficult, too, with multiple directors being tossed aside by the studio before Antonia Bird made the magic finally happen despite massive studio interference. Bird was ultimately unhappy with the final cut. She’s too hard on it. Like most classics, the mess is what makes it a masterpiece. The tonal whiplash is what makes it effective.
Take, for instance, the score by Damon Albarn (of Gorillaz and Blur) and Michael Nyman (a minimalist composer known for operas). It wasn’t exactly a collaboration; the two each wrote about half of the pieces on the soundtrack. It’s to Albarn & Nyman’s credit that their musical contributions sink so deeply into the story told by Bird, who shoots the on-location work in Slovakia with all the love and tenderness of John Ford in Monument Valley, even when the score doesn’t fit the traditional tenor of a scene’s events. The minimalist banjo and folk-heavy score is celebratory in moments of adventure and natural beauty, before, during and after great violence. It never betrays the mood or Bird’s vision, even when the music gets jaunty and fun as men are chased and massacred. Later, the music turns somewhat sour, maybe even a littel satanic. A chanting dirge of save our souls repeats during the pared-down hand-to-hand final confrontation. It couldn’t be more dissonant with the film’s earlier tone, but it all comes together immaculately.
Ravenous is drowning in blood and viscera, so much so that it’s disarming and even funny. One sequence always comes to mind when I think of the film, perhaps Pearce’s crowning achievement as an actor. Boyd is bleeding out with a plate of cannibal stew in front of him. Colqhoun is tempting Boyd to eat it. If he does, his wound will heal, and he’ll feel like a new man. If not, he will die. The score by Albarn and Nyman blares. Pearce, body drenched by the blood running from his mouth, bobs his head in and out of consciousness. He goes cross-eyed. His wound gushes. You laugh to keep from wrenching. It is magnificent, go-for-broke bloody cinema.
I wonder why Ravenous wasn’t an instant classic.
Ravenous isn’t a hopeful Western where an individual represents the triumph of a cultural idea, but rather a horror story about how little anyone matters in the scheme of our bloody American ouroboros. Major events like the Mexican-American War are a footnote now to most Americans. If remembered at all, it’s played as a triumph and usually in the context of how it taught Civil War characters the art of war. The film’s Fort Spencer setting feels offbeat. Its run-down buildings and snowy vistas don’t align with the traditional Western iconography of our nation’s self-aggrandizing history. (Certainly the mountainous setting, filmed in Slovakia, is also a visual less traveled for films in the genre although shooting outside of the United States to save money is a time-honored Western tradition.)
Colqhoun’s speech to Boyd tempting him toward cannibalism comes to mind frequently: “You hunger for it. You just won’t resign yourself to it. It’s not so difficult, really. Acquiesce. It’s easy, actually. You just give in.” Have enough people resigned themselves to our present predicament, embraced that hunger for violence and the comforting myth of an exceptional society? Can anybody resist it?
Boyd’s story in Ravenous is that of an unexceptional everyman who can either dine or be dinner in his slice of America. In the end he chooses neither, stopping Colqhoun and dying in the process. Their final confrontation is stripped down, graphic, and incredibly human. He removes himself from the equation, performing one good act and then dying in the arms of his personal satan.
His triumph? In death, he no longer has to worry about any of this shit. Pearce plays those bloody last breaths as relief. He won’t feel hungry anymore, and won’t have to resist that hunger. Boyd struggles into doing one good thing in his godforsaken life, and the impact of that event is limited to the two men who die in the Fort Spencer cowshed. Maybe that’s all a good deed can ever be.
As Boyd dies, a pot of human stew simmers over a fire to challenge the next crew stationed in this misbegotten place.