Published March 1, 1999
Ravenous, written by Ted Griffin and directed by Antonia Bird, is one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen in a long time. I even found myself rather enjoying it for the amusingly original way it has of making its highly dubious point. This is, as I understand it, the presentation of an essentially feminist view of male and military societies — a view which understands nothing of the actual workings of such societies but which is fascinated by the imagery of blood and battle and loyalty and dominance and has found a strikingly allegorical if not very successfully cinematic way of representing them in terms of cannibalism. The temptations of power are here represented as the mythic Indian spirit, the Weendigo, that is said to come upon men who have tasted the flesh of other men. This is a kind of blood lust that never relaxes its grip on those who have submitted to it. Eating human flesh is found to cure all illnesses, heal all but the most catastrophic wounds, and make you unimaginably powerful with the aggregated spirits of those you have consumed, but it will never let you stop your career of killing and eating others.
That, the authors imply, is what war and its purpose of dominance over others are like. The film presents us with an opening epigraph from Nietzsche — “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he does not become a monster” — which it does not appear to have noticed is not at all the same thing as saying that he who fights with monsters must be a monster himself. For the latter and much more doubtful proposition is what is presented to us here in metaphorical form with the premiss that he who has once tasted the forbidden meat is doomed to hunger for it ever after. It’s a bit like the vampire mythology in that the transformation from man to monster can only move in one direction — except that you become a monster by biting and not by being bitten. Underneath the quotation from Nietzsche is another, attributed to “Anon” — “Eat me.” The combination of seriousness and flippancy will be carried through the rest of the film.
Its hero is Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a man who inadvertently becomes a hero in the Mexican War by shamming death from sheer cowardice, being taken with a lot of other corpses behind enemy lines, and then coming to life in time to aid his advancing countrymen. He gets a medal, but his commanding officer, knowing or suspecting the truth, exiles him to the godforsaken Fort Spencer, a federal outpost in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Fort Spencer is seen as a comic model of military absurdity. The commanding officer, Col Heart (Jeffrey Jones) is a kindly, scholarly sort who likes to study Indian languages but has no interest in maintaining discipline. In describing the half-dozen other officers and men at the outpost to the new arrival, the Colonel particularly mentions Reich (Neal McDonough) as “the soldier” and someone to be avoided.
The others include the drunken medical man, Knox (Stephen Spinella), a cook called Cleaves (David Arquett) who is forever spaced out on drugs and Toffler (Jeremy Davies), a Jesus freak said to be “the representative of the Lord” to Fort Spencer, together with a couple of Indians. Everything about their material and moral conditions, including the ramshackle fort and its primitive amenities, the bleak wintry landscape and the seemingly complete lack of unit cohesion in this collection of weaklings, drunks and psychos is meant to debunk the very idea of military honor and glory. “Did anyone do anything today?” asks the Colonel at dinner, and the whole table bursts into a manic laughter suggesting nothing so much as barely suppressed hysteria. “We have a great sense of camaraderie here at Fort Spencer,” the Colonel explains to the newcomer. His toast is: “To escape, in one form or another.”
Into the midst of this bizarre collection of pointless existences comes a wandering Scot calling himself Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) who claims to have escaped from a party of settlers on its way to California under the guidance of a military officer called Ives. He gives a nightmarish account of their stranding in the mountains, their madness from hunger and finally their getting to the point, led by Ives, of eating each other. He says that he was on the point of being eaten himself when he left the monstrous Ives and the one other survivor of the party. The Colonel decides it is his duty and that of his men to go with Colquhoun to find the cave where such horrors are said to have taken place and bring back any survivors, but when they get there they make an even more horrifying discovery.
From this point onwards, what had looked like gritty historical realism becomes macabre farce with touches of magical realism. There seems no other purpose to it all than to repeat with variations the central image of the ghastliness and absurdity of the male power game in which the rule is — here, literally — eat or be eaten. The film ends with a shot of its sole female character, an Indian woman called Martha (Sheila Tousey) who has instructed the sensitive Captain Boyd in the lore of the Weendigo and has somehow managed to survive the carnage, looking over her shoulder as she walks away from that which once represented itself to her as civilization. “How civilized,” says one of the surviving eaters as he tucks into a stew made from one of the non-surviving eatees. Martha’s grateful escape from such civilization and back into the (presumably) more benign wild nature from which she has come adds a serious (if foolish) conclusion to what is otherwise mainly comical to this point — a kind of theatre of the absurd. But those without strong stomachs will probably not find the comedy much to their, um, taste.