Weird Western Films: Ravenous (1999)
A genuinely superb Western horror story in which frontier cannibalism becomes a satiric metaphor for manifest destiny.
By Max Sparber
"Ravenous" is probably due for a revival. It was not well-liked when it debuted, with critics and audiences buffaloed by its weird tonal shifts, from pitch-black comedy to gore-drenched horror. But nowadays arch, arty entertainment about cannibalism is all the rage, and audiences might be predisposed to a different reaction.
The film has already enjoyed a critical reevaluation, with a number of critics declaring it an underrated treasure. I'm told it has a cult audience, and I suspect it's true; it has a cult audience of at least one. Me.
It's strange that the film took so long to find plaudits, because the ghastly subject of frontier cannibalism has been the subject of black comedy since at least 1886, when Mark Twain authored "Cannibalism in the Cars," a dryly monstrous short story about congressmen trapped on a snowbound train who use — and manipulate — parliamentary procedure to decide who to eat.
But I suppose 1999 is a few years after 1886, and even though "Ravenous" debuted just six years after Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "Cannibal: The Musical," which mined similar themes, that film received scant distribution. It's hard out there for a frontier cannibal comedy.
"Ravenous" tells the story of a military outpost in the Sierra Nevada Mountains about the time of the Mexican-American War. It's winter, so the outpost not only has a skeleton crew, but they are all misfits, pushed into a job nobody else would want. Chief among these is a man named Boyd (Guy Pierce), a coward who accidentally got some blood in his mouth during a battle on the Mexican border, and suddenly found himself singlehandedly capturing the Mexican headquarters.
You see, the film borrows Algonquin legend of the wendigo, a malevolent spirit that, in some tellings, possesses humans and turns them into cannibals. It's a potent legend, and many Native Americans also interpreted the legend metaphorically, using it to describe any behavior that was destructive and consuming. In particular, they applied this metaphor to white colonialism.
In this telling, the wendigo expresses itself through an uncontrollable hunger for human flesh and a supernatural ability to recover from wounds. A wendigo enters the camp, played with mountain man hair and wild mannerisms by Robert Carlisle, and lays a trap for the others. One by one, each of the members of the base get picked off, depleting it of its eccentricity (actors here include Jeffrey Jones, Jeremy Davies, and Jeffrey Jones, all more or less letting their frontier freak flags fly.)
Boyd has an advantage, though: When push comes to shove, he's not above a little cannibalism himself, although, unlike Carlisle, he feels guilty about it. When Carlisle reveals his plans to use the military fort as a base for surreptitiously picking off westward migrants, Boyd must decide exactly how bad he feels about eating other people.
All of this plays out ... well, gorgeously. The military base is an exquisite (and exquisitely filthy) work of rustic set design, while the rest of it is filmed against the background of the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia and Poland, subbing in for Sierra Nevada and looking appropriately frozen, hostile and murderous. The soundtrack is exquisite, especially in its use of folk fiddle, Indian chants, and, in one especially suspenseful scene, a loop of a man groaning. The film was directed, mostly, by Antonia Bird (there was some backstage politicking that probably helped sour critics to the film), and she brings an avant garde sensibility, jagged and muscular, to a lot of the scenes.
The film explicitly tinkers with the idea of manifest destiny, the idea that white colonial settlers were destined to spread westward across America, but the film itself is a rejection of these notions. Manifest destiny believed colonial expansion was justified by the goodness of American institutions, and that we improved the world by spreading them westward.
But nothing good has gone west in this movie. The fort is full of misfits, one of whom, explicitly, was sent west to keep him away from other Americans. Pioneers heading westward are clueless invaders, unable to fend for themselves, who quickly turn to cannibalism. In this movie, we did not go west as reformers or as leaders, but as monsters. Indeed, while most of the cast turns into wendigo on their trip westward, the main character was one before he even started on his journey.
I'd say it's as cynical a representation of American institutions as I have ever experienced, but, then, Mark Twain once wrote a story about congressmen on a snowbound train.