Ravenous is an overlooked film from 1999. On its release it was met with critical derision, but in hindsight it is plain to see it’s actually something of an oddball gem. Perhaps calling it a contemporary classic is a little tenuous, but then these are my picks, so tough luck. It’s also somewhat genre illusive, neither a purist Horror film nor solely a Western. However, as my first contemporary classic was a Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I feel justified discussing this beautiful, hybrid of a film.
Initially, Ravenous was directed by Milco Mancevski, but he left the production after just two weeks of principle photography and the studio’s replacement, quickly followed-suit. This left the film without a director, but upon the recommendation of Robert Carlyle (FW Colqhoun/Colonel Ives), the British director Antonia Bird was hired.
The film’s narrative is concerned with the plight of two soldiers, each finding themselves in similar situations where they succumb to cannibalism. The films protagonist is Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a veteran of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Boyd is decorated for bravery but it’s quickly established his actions were less than honourable, which promptly leads to Boyd being sent to Fort Spencer, in the wilderness of the Sierra, Nevada Mountains.
After settling-in to Fort Spencer, Boyd meets its rag-tag array of inhabitants; Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) the units highest ranking soldier, Private Toffler (Jeremy Davies) the Priest, Major Knox (Stephen Spinella) the drunk veterinarian, Private Reich (Neal McDonough) the ‘soldier’, and Private Cleaves (David Arquette) the idiot. However, shortly after Boyd’s arrival a stranger (Carlyle) wanders into the encampment. This is the film’s antagonist, who has an insatiable appetite for human flesh and so the battle for survival begins.
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Before delving into the subtext of Ravenous let’s discuss some of its quainter aspects. For instance, the film is often referred to as a black comedy, true it has a few humorous moments, but to call it a black comedy is as tenuous as calling it a modern class…
Perhaps the only thing that could have improved this impressive film was if the grizzly troubadour, Tom Waits, had been cast. The singer/actor was in the process of accepting a role but was rejected by one of the film’s producers, due to financial concerns – a squandered opportunity.
Ravenous was certainly marketed as a Horror film and while it does feature sequences of extreme gore (albeit not by today’s torture-porn standards) there are almost no scares whatsoever, with the horror being derived through gore or tension, in a similar vein to Wes Craven’s, The Hills Have Eyes. The film’s soundtrack is rather special, a collaborative effort by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn (yes him from Blur). I’m particularly fond of the sound effects which appear over the titles, names whoosh-in and off the screen with appropriate (or rather inappropriate) sounds, which contributes to the film’s barmy atmosphere.
extremely hungry; famished; voracious: feeling ravenous after a hard day’s work.
intensely eager for gratification or satisfaction.
These two definitions illustrate the dual meanings of the film’s title, Ravenous. On the outset Ravenous is a film about cannibalism, men who are so famished they resort to eating one another, which the first definition (above) refers to. However, the film’s rather obvious subtext is about what men ‘getup-to’, in the wilderness alone. These are men desperately trying to satisfy their carnal desires; they are ‘ravenous’ for the ‘flesh’ of their fellow man. Ravenous’ allegorical tale is of repressed homosexuality, which isn’t surprising considering the film borders on the cusp of the Western genre.
The film often alludes to this, Colghoun, speaking of his survival in the wilderness discusses eating root vegetables, saying, “you know there’s no real nourishment in those”, inferring his taste, or better yet, yearning for ‘meat’. All the soldiers feel the ‘hunger’, but they choose to repress their desires because society tells them it is wrong. So, Colonel Hart embraces literature, Private Toffler religion, Private Reich resorts to masochistic exercises, such as bathing in freezing cold waters, something often associated with reducing sexual thoughts, as in, ‘to go and take a cold shower’, and then there’s the usual mix of alcohol and drugs, which are the preferred medicines of Major Knox and Private Cleaves. Colghoun/Ives is the only soldier in the film who embraces his desires, all of the other soldiers attempt to repress theirs, but they are all ultimately punished for denying their ‘urges’.
The relationship between Ives and Boyd is one of love and hate. It’s explicit that the characters can’t decide whether they want to fight or ‘frolic’. Ives is the aggressive pursuer and Boyd is the frightened, passive victim of the pursuer’s gaze, which is typically the role of the female. Thus Boyd is feminised by Ives’ gaze and although he is tempted by his desires, he struggles against his carnal yearnings. However, the film concludes with Boyd killing Ives, but in-doing-so he has to sacrifice himself. The film’s final image is of the two men perpetually interlocked, like lovers in their final, passionate embrace.
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