British director Antonia Bird's second American feature,
following the disappointingly formulaic Mad Love, is a strange hybrid
western cum horror tale involving cannibals and ancient Indian myths.
Ravenous is set in 1847, during the westward expansion that
preceded the gold rush. Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce, in his first
role since LA Confidential) has been awarded a medal for bravery
during the Mexican-American War. Because the true circumstances of
his heroism are actually a little embarrassing for the US Army, Boyd
is banished to a small outpost in California, which is manned by a
small unit of drunkards and misfits.
Into the camp stumbles the nearly dead Colqhoun (Robert
Carlyle), who claims to be one of the few survivors of a strange
expedition stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Colqhoun tells
how his band of settlers turned to cannibalism in order to survive.
His tale shocks the soldiers. The camp's Indian guide raises the
spectre of an ancient myth in which cannibals mysteriously gain the
strength of their victims. As Colqhoun reveals his true nature and
begins slaughtering the soldiers, Boyd is faced with a horrible
decision - to eat or be eaten.
Ravenous is the first script from writer Ted Griffin, and is
ludicrously full of holes. The whole thing grows sillier as it
progresses. The injection of modern throw away humour further
unbalances the tone of the film.
Ravenous is the fourth collaboration between Bird and Carlyle,
but it is also the least compelling. The pair seem to enjoy working
together, and obviously had fun making this film, but unfortunately
the result is not so pleasant for the audience. Carlyle seems to be
enjoying himself with this rather risible role, and he overacts
wonderfully in a manner reminiscent of Gary Oldman when he is slumming
it. Pearce brings a brooding quality to his role, but he always seems
to a little uncomfortable.
The supporting cast includes a number of character actors who
have made their mark playing quirky characters in smaller, independent
films. However, they all have little impact on this preposterous
material. David Arquette (Scream, etc) is wasted in a silly, almost
contemporary flavoured role as Cleaves, a soldier perpetually doped up
from smoking a peace pipe. Jeremy Davies (Spanking The Monkey, Going
All The Way, etc) has recently cornered the market with edgy, neurotic
adolescents on the cusp of sexual maturity, but is given little to do
in a fairly straightforward role as the religious Toffler. Veteran
Jeffrey Jones (Ferris Bueller's Day Off, etc) lands the meatier role
as the fort's eccentric commander, and he hams it up accordingly.
The film has been handsomely shot by cinematographer Anthony B
Richmond, and the snow covered locations are quite beautiful. (Prague
actually doubles for 18th century California!)
Bird directs with a lack of subtlety, emphasising the gore.
Anyone who has seen her tough and confronting British films (Face,
Priest, etc) will know that she makes few concessions for being a
member of the fairer sex. However, when crossing the Atlantic, her
Hollywood projects have been bland and fallen short of expectations.
With this nasty, tasteless piece of nonsense about cannibals in the
old west she seems to have bitten off more than she can chew.
Ravenous is a twisted and unsatisfactory experience that will leave a
bitter aftertaste in the mouth.
Whatever was Bird thinking at the time? It must have been
something she ate!
Copyright © 1999 Greg King