In his review of the 1993 cannibalism-for-survival drama Alive, Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman called the moment when the plane crash survivors finally decide to eat the remains of the dead passengers "truly disgusting." In these eyes, it was an undoubtedly discomfiting but rather tame moment, with most of the grisliness left to the imagination; it only got as bad as seeing arms moving as if cutting into something and the slices of, um, meat.
If that's Gleiberman's idea of "truly disgusting," I'm interested in hearing what he has to say about Ravenous, which opens with a table full of hungry 19th Century army men voraciously digging into extra-rare slabs of meat, which leads one soldier, John Boyd (Guy Pearce), to lose his lunch and just about any other meal he's ever had. OK, so they're not eating humans--they're eating beef. But it gives one a fair inkling of how graphic the "food" consumption gets once the cannibalism theme takes over.
After narrowly escaping death in a battle in the Mexican War, Boyd is assigned to a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas manned only by Hart (Jeffrey Jones), the commanding officer; Toffler (Jeremy Davies, doing the soft-spoken thing yet again), the religious leader; Knox (Stephen Spinella), the hard-drinking doctor; no-nonsence Reich (Neal McDonough); and Cleaves (David Arquette), the over-medicated cook. Entering their fold one night is the mysterious loner Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who tells a horrific tale about how his now-dead settling party turned to cannibalism in the wilds. In due time, the human flesh diet starts to gain popularity with this group.
Ravenous is definitely not for the squeamish. Director Antonia Bird pulls no punches as far as gore is concerned; one especially graphic scene between Pearce and Arquette is certain to send some viewers racing to the restroom, and a climactic bloodbath of a fight scene really pushes the limits of an R-rating. But Bird's tongue is often in cheek during the gory proceedings; the over-the-top nature, while sure to offend many, is actually the big factor in keeping one from taking it overly seriously.
Screenwriter Ted Griffin is also in on the joke, offering some amusingly self-aware lines ("It's lonely being a cannibal. It's tough making friends.") But his script accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of being overstuffed and undercooked at the same time. He offers a mystical explanation for all the cannibalism, which then launches into metaphors about addiction and the quest for eternal youth--this all in addition to trying to be a down-and-dirty horror film. But then there's the matter of characterization, which there is little of; with only schematically developed personalities onscreen, there's no real audience investment as to who ends up being the diner or dinner.
I cannot say that I was ever bored by Ravenous; the actors and its deliciously disgusting subject matter always keep it watchable and--dare I say it--amusing. There's nothing wrong with that, but in attempting to be something more, Ravenous ends up offering even less to chew on.
RATING: *** (out of *****)
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