Every once in a while, I’ll open up the vault to pull out a forgotten treasure or an underappreciated gem
Directed by: Antonia Bird
Starring: Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, David Arquette
This utterly delightful black comedy/horror thriller had a troubled production with a small budget, a director change weeks into shooting, and alleged constant script rewrites. In March 1999, it landed with a thud in theaters and was met with disdain by critics and disinterest by movie audiences making barely over 2 million dollars, classifying it firmly as a box office turkey. Oddly, one of the film’s few defenders was the late, great Roger Ebert (a notorious detractor of modern horror) who lauded the film’s visual style and clever dialogue. Perhaps not so oddly, one of the film’s few attendees was myself who saw it opening weekend.
I’ve probably seen it a dozen times since. I’m not sure why I keep coming back to it. It’s certainly no masterpiece. But it is unique. There’s a darkly funny grittiness to it that I just find appealing which probably says as much about me as it does about the film. When I watched it again to prepare for this, I noticed that the film’s setup is remarkably similar to that of the classic western Dances With Wolves. An American soldier wounded in battle is recognized for bravery (under dubious circumstances) and rewarded with a new post in the burgeoning West.
Here, Lt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is fully aware that his ‘reward’ is actually an exile to a remote military outpost in the Sierra Nevadas of California. Likewise, his superior knows that the only way Boyd was able to advance beyond enemy line in this battle of the Mexican-American War was to feign death while his comrades fell around him. Thrown into the enemy camp, fellow soldier’s dead bodies stacked upon him, he frees himself and tries to escape. Stumbling upon the opposing force’s leader and subduing him in the process, he becomes a paper hero and is promoted to the rank of Captain.
Glory fades when he arrives at his new post of Fort Spencer which is occupied by a ragtag gang of similar rejects led by the genial, rotund Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones). Boyd is just settling into his role as the third-in-command when a stranger arrives in camp. Mr. Calqhon (Robert Carlyle) spins a tale of a wagon train gone awry, stranded and forced to eat the dead. Calqhon abandoned the few survivors who remained fearful that he would be the next to fall to the cannibalistic hunger of the group’s guide, Colonel Ives.
When Hart hears of the survivors, he’s determined to free them from the clutches of the crazed Colonel and sets out, along with Boyd and a few other of the camp’s crew, to find the campsite. When the men of Fort Spencer arrive, they encounter much more than they could have ever expected.
Director Bird didn’t helm a lot of features before this one and she’s worked exclusively in television since but considering she inherited the role and faced a lot of studio interference she did a great job. She makes great use of the landscape of the Czech Republic where the film was primarily shot. Everything just looks dirty, snowy and wet. Everyone looks smelly and miserable. She really sells Fort Spencer as quite possibly the last place anyone would want to be.
She also did a great job with the cast. Robert Carlyle, an underrated actor IMHO, brings a quiet desperation to the character of Calqhon, shell-shocked by the events he’s witnessed. His portrayal develops as we discover more about the character who may not be sharing everything he knows. Most miraculously, she squeezes a great performance from the usually leaden Pearce, who starts as a coward before becoming a survivor and ultimately the hero exhibiting the bravery and sacrifice for which he was falsely commended.
Finally, one cannot speak of this movie without addressing the stellar score by Blur frontman Damon Alban and British composer Michael Nyman. A lot of fans of movie music feel the best scores tend to fade into the background and should serve to enhance what the viewer is seeing. They should not become so noticeable that they obscure the film. The score to this movie is noticeable though and at time seems discordant to the movie itself. And yet somehow, it works. It’s really good. I wish I had it on CD but it is way ‘out of print’ and almost impossible to find reasonably priced on the secondary market. I’ll keep looking though. It’ll be worth the hunt.
Ravenous is available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video.