Ravenous (1999)

*. The West (and the Western) was de-mythologized a long time ago. I don’t think Ravenous takes this project any further, and I’m not sure that was its purpose. I think it’s more about de-mythologizing the horror genre.
*. How else can you describe the motives behind a movie about a Wendigo-inspired cannibal in which the hero is a wimpy coward with a death wish? Guy Pearce as Captain John Boyd is not the kind of guy who is going to man up, which is wonderful. This is what a real antihero should be: not a bad man, but a vulnerable one.
*. Moving beyond this, however, I still find Ravenous to be a hard movie to pin down. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. Things got off to a rocky start when the original director was let go after a couple of weeks due to creative differences. The next fellow up didn’t work out either so Antonia Bird was brought in (she’d been recommended by Robert Carlyle). I think Bird does a decent job, but I have to wonder how personally invested she felt in the project, being brought in at the last minute. Apparently she had her problems with the shoot and with what happened to the film in post production as well, though on her DVD commentary she seems pretty sanguine about the whole experience.
*. There are two aspects of the film in particular that sow confusion. The first has to do with the story, which has a bifurcated structure. That is, there’s a strong medial split in the plot as Colqhoun (not an easy name to type) turns into Colonel Ives. There’s nothing wrong with such a structure, and sometimes it works, but here it just left me a bit puzzled by how Colqhoun was getting away with it and what the first part of the movie really had to do with the second. There isn’t a real clear narrative thread tying it all together.
*. The second puzzling aspect of the film has to do with tone. There’s nothing wrong with horror-comedy, at least in theory. In order for it to be effective, however, I think the horror has to work on its own. I’ve always thought that the best horror-comedies exploit nervous laughter. Unfortunately, Ravenous just isn’t scary, and there are points in the film where the comic elements seem jarringly intrusive. I’m thinking especially of the score, which sometimes has playful hillbilly music running alongside what should be tense action sequences. I guess something similar was done in Bonnie and Clyde (that’s what I was thinking of anyway), but I don’t think it works as well here because it just makes the violence seem like a joke.
*. The weather also messed me up. I kept wondering why sometimes it was a winter wonderland and the next scene everything was green. Apparently this was a problem they were aware of during production. The exteriors were shot in Slovakia and it was supposed to be snowy but it just so happened that this was a winter without snow in that part of Slovakia.
*. The characters all sound very contemporary, which probably wasn’t an accident. I don’t think there’s any historical axe to grind. Instead, the various angles being suggested, on matters such as genre, vegetarianism, and even drug use (Bird says on the commentary that Colqhoun is the ultimate pusher and Boyd the ultimate junky) are all modern.
*. I guess the studio wasn’t sure what to do with it either. In addition to the creative differences that led to the switches in director there was the genre confusion and also the absence of any female lead or love interest. When it was all shot they then recut it in ways that didn’t please everyone. Meanwhile, they couldn’t even spell Nietzsche’s name right for the epigraph.
*. Not surprisingly, it bombed. Badly. I missed it when it came out entirely. Indeed, before now I had never even heard of it.
*. Given all of this I think it’s pretty impressive they ended up with a movie this good. I think it has some nice atmosphere and there’s no denying its many unique qualities. If it doesn’t quite come together, well, we can always blame the weather.

4 thoughts on “Ravenous (1999)

  1. Tom Moody

    I saw this in its original theatrical run and remember it now mostly for Michael Nyman’s eccentric score. (He also did “The Cook The Thief…” and was an ’80s “cult” musician). I agree that the music was just one more incongruous element in a movie full of incongruities. I probably went on the strength of Nyman and Antonia Bird, whose film Priest I had liked — that’s probably also the Robert Carlyle point of connection. The late ’90s served up a few experimental oddities – this film came out the same year as Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil, which the studio buried and I didn’t see until years later. Also ExistenZ and the Matrix!

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Tom! You saw this when it came out? I’m impressed! That puts you in a select company of moviegoers.

      I think given all the problems they had with the production (and then in post-production) that Ravenous was always going to be a mess. I remember the music being just part of it. It made me wonder just what kind of a movie Nyman thought he was scoring. He probably wasn’t sure himself.

      Rolling Stone ran a nice retrospective appreciation of the chaos here: https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/to-serve-man-why-ravenous-is-the-greatest-cannibal-western-ever-20151027

      It’s the sort of movie that might have gone on to have a cult attached to it, but I think the days of the cult movie are over. From everything I can gather it remains largely unknown.

  2. Tom Moody

    The Rolling Stone piece is good — it reminds me that the “America Eats Itself” theme was actually fairly successful here. I do remember liking this aspect of it at the time, and thinking a British (and female) director was getting away with something vis a vis Yank machismo (not knowing how little control she actually may have had). I recommend Ride With the Devil as a companion piece — an Asian-born director’s take on the Civil War as a confused spectacle of gruesome, neighbor-against-neighbor guerrilla fighting (which it was in Missouri). That film died because no one, including the studio, could deal with the character played by Jeffrey Wright, a freed slave who fought for the South. I think about these revisionist Hollywood efforts quite a bit because the subversive impulse died after the World Trade Center attacks. Imagine any exec greenlighting a movie post-2001 where cowboys were cannibals!

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Thanks Tom! I haven’t seen Ride with the Devil but I’ll check it out. There does seem to be a political tolerance zone around certain subjects that (commercially) it’s wise to stay inside. At different times these become more or less prominent.


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