Welcome back to our newly revamped “Retro Reviews” column, where we explore both the movies you know and love, as well as the oft overlooked gems you should be spending more time with. Our sixth entry is Antonia Bird’s underrated cannibal Western, Ravenous (1999)…
Ravenous is an extremely potent horror picture.
Yet to only view the film through the narrow prism of a single genre ignores what truly makes it special. Like Alex Cox before her, Antonia Bird has cobbled together a singular Western whose deepest roots reach back to its “spaghetti” precursors from Spain and Italy in the 1960s and 70s. It’s an amalgamation of particular influence; pulling from deep cut directors like Joaquin Romero Marchent while also tipping its Calvary cap toward Sergio Corbucci. So while the viscera may remain in the cave of the viewer’s mind much more vividly than the vistas, Bird has undoubtedly crafted an examination of manifest destiny that ranks with Major Dundee and Heaven’s Gate as a touchstone of widescreen Western filmmaking.
For post-Deadwood first time viewers, the eccentrics Captain Jon Boyd (Guy Pearce) meets upon making his yellow-bellied arrival at Fort Spencer are going to almost feel like archetypes. Covered in dirt and grime, they make up a veritable log cabin microcosm — the ineffectual leader (Jeffrey Jones), the squirrelly preacher (Jeremy Davies), the stone cold killer (Neil McDonough), the Native American guide (Joseph Runningfox) and the fool he supplies with too much pipe smoke and peyote (David Arquette) are the misfits who call this frozen pit of Californian hell home. In fact, if it weren’t for weary traveler F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) spouting stories of survived cannibalism after arriving at camp, Ravenous could’ve easily been a loose character piece about lost boys in the wilderness.
Even the supernatural elements of Bird’s picture are rooted in campfire iconography. The stranger who arrives is instantly branded a ‘Wendigo’ by the Native Americans — a demon who was once man, his taste for human flesh turning him into something monstrous. The story of endurance the wanderer brings with him? A militaristic take on the infamous Donner Party — a group of American pioneers who, after being stranded during heavy snowfall, began to eat one another in a desperate attempt for survival. The insatiable hunger of F.W. Colqhoun even echoes that of the “Big-Headed Cannibal”, Alferd Packer, a California prospector who reprtedly ate human flesh while stuck in the Rocky Mountains without provisions during the winter of 1874. Ted Griffin’s script takes all of these homogeneous elements and mashes them together into something rather unique; a blend of Western legends that becomes its own stand-alone entity.
Bird and Griffin aren’t the only artists who draw from a distinct well of inspiration. While many reviewers (both in 1999 and fifteen years on) are quick to label the picture’s score “idiosyncratic” or “unique”, former Blur frontman/future Gorillaz mastermind Damon Alabarn and fellow countryman composer Michael Nyman (Gattaca, The Libertine) have crafted a soundtrack that is just as derivative of titanic works as it is distinctive in it own right. The sparse, tinny, plucked guitar is reminiscent of both Luis Bacalov and Ennio Morricone. A chase is set to a howling banjo number that feels pulled straight from the more slapstick moments in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Were it not for the modern production flourishes (there’s an almost “looped sample” feel to the main theme), an uninformed viewer might guess that Bird pieced the soundtrack together from her own record collection, a la Quentin Tarantino and Django Unchained.
Holding the entire picture up on his narrow shoulders is Guy Pearce who, in 1999, was coming off of his biggest American role to date in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential. While Carlyle arguably gets to chew the scenery with a bit more gusto, Pearce’s stoicism almost makes you forgive the act of cowardice he received a medal (not to mention a “promotion”) for. In fact, it takes nearly twenty-five minutes of runtime for Boyd to even utter his first full sentence, placing him squarely in the arena of phlegmatic, Leonian anti-heros. Only Pearce gets a chance to subvert the stereotypical “man of action” by being the constant resister. The crux of Ravenous isn’t about Boyd rushing to his gun, but rather rejecting the urge his fellow survivors have given in to. With his gaunt, sinewy features, Pearce’s suffering can be seen in every muscle of his body, as they tense and burn for nourishment. Once Boyd is finally forced to fight back, Pearce sells the physical savagery with aplomb, utilizing a bear trap during the ad-libbed brawl between Boyd and Carlyle’s Colqhoun in a way that would make even Peckinpah blush. While Pearce’s true breakout role wouldn’t come until the next year (as Leonard Shelby in Chris Nolan’s oft-gushed-over Memento), Ravenous remains the overlooked gem of a performance in his early filmography.
Many of the cast members would go on to land huge roles in later Westerns. Pearce slathered himself in dirt again for John Hillcoat’s Australian ode to Leone, The Proposition. Jeffrey Jones went on to play a very similar role on Deadwood. Both Jeremy Davies and Neil McDonough would both take on memorable villain roles in FX’s modern gunslinger series, Justified. With all of those turns taken by former Fort Spencer inhabitants, it’s hard not to wonder if casting directors for each of these respective projects had Bird’s freakish take on the genre in the back of their brains.
While the climax of the film does involve a rather traditional “final battle”, even when Ravenous attempts to transform into a full-blown horror picture it does so by almost becoming a two-man chamber piece. So much of the picture’s back half is spent with Boyd and Colqhoun, trading their opposing ideas regarding what cannibalism and manifest destiny mean to the men of the American West. Were Ravenous released in 2014, you’d have to wonder if David Milch himself didn’t have a hand in ghost polishing Griffin’s immaculate screenplay. Monologues are delivered with Shakespearean intensity, spelling out the film’s main themes in such an ornate manner that they feel like precursors to Al Swearengen’s profane moments of oral floridity. However, the vampiric elements are never far from the narrative’s forefront, lending Bird’s film a near-unclassifiable feel that has truly never been replicated since.
Ravenous is available today on beautiful blu-ray thanks to the fine folks at Scream Factory.