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'Ravenous': A Western Cookout With Men on the Menu

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 1999

  Movie Critic


'Ravenous'
Guy Pearce stars in "Ravenous." (20th Century Fox)

Director:
Antonia Bird
Cast:
Guy Pearce;
Robert Carlyle;
Jeremy Davies;
Jeffrey Jones;
John Spencer;
Stephen Spinella;
Neal McDonough;
David Arquette
Running Time:
1 hour, 40 minutes
R
Extreme violence and gore, plus recipes of dubious worth
"Ravenous" argues for the greatness of man, particularly in stews, though on the bone over a 320-degree flame for 20 minutes to medium rare with a light dusting of paprika, that's also really terrific! Maybe this movie should be reviewed by a restaurant critic like Phyllis Richman, not me.

Folly marches onward! Does Fox have so much money it wants to throw some away for a tax loss? And what kind of pitch meeting let this one happen: "R.M., how about a real meat-and-potatoes movie: a . . . cannibal western! Think of the product tie-ins: A-1 sauce, lemon pepper, Weber grills, Kingsford charcoal, Ruth's Chris!"

Set in 1847, "Ravenous" shows what happens when men who don't play well with others get hungry. It seems to be gearing up to connect with the episode of the Donner party, but never touches that old chestnut, possibly because everybody in it is Australian or English or Scottish and it was shot in Czechoslovakia, so nobody ever heard of the Donner party's picnic that snowbound winter.

As "Ravenous" has it, at the Conradian darkness on the farthest edge of the American empire part way through the last century, a fort has been set up for disgraced officers and loser enlisted men. During the winter months, a skeleton crew merely maintains the place, when it offers assistance to travelers west. One night, however, a daft Scotsman (Robert Carlyle) wanders in, claiming to be one of a party of settlers who, Donner-like, were marooned in a cave and began to eat the dead. The commanding officer (Jeffrey Jones) takes a small unit to reach the last survivor; alas, they learn that the Scotsman is himself the only survivor and he's done so by eating the others. In an ecstasy of homicide, he kills every one of the rescuers except a cowardly officer played by Aussie Guy Pearce, last seen in "L.A. Confidential" and after the run of this movie he will still be last seen in "L.A. Confidential" because he spends most of this movie masked in blood, his own or other people's.

Pearce survives. When he returns to the fort, the Scotsman, now miraculously reborn in an image of glowing health and vigor, turns out to be an Army colonel put in command of the little post. His idea, seemingly inspired by reading too many Anne Rice novels, is to use the post as a feeding station for selected fatties heading westward. There's a suggestion that cannibalism is the lifestyle choice of the young and hot; it makes you buff without having to spend all that time on the Stairmaster.

The film is one of those accursed self-styled "outrageous" comedies that play the horrific for broad laughs, with a comically inflated style of dialogue that's so hip one doubts it could have been conceived before 1997, much less 1847. It's "Eating Raoul" in buckskins. But the movie is also coarse and bloody (blood seeping, splattering, gurgling, gushing or blackening into aspic in the sun, is the visual motif) and uses far too many horror movie tricks, like the shock of the mutilated body or the unexpected plasma squirt.

Possibly English director Antonia Bird and screenwriter Ted Griffin (Colgate, Class of '93) had metaphorical intentions. When the insane Carlyle explains his vision of the future and the true meaning of manifest destiny to the stunned Pearce, the flag flutters magnificently in the background as if to make some point about American hegemony of the continent: Was it cannibalism of the natural world, of people of color, of the animals of forest and fen? Are cannibalism and capitalism indistinguishable?

Well, after a bit, this sort of bores them, so they go back to the stabbings, the crushings and the gougings. One minor note: Two scenes that figure powerfully in the previews and TV ads – a bare-chested blondie bathing in a mountain stream in the dead of winter with a blood-chillingly blue demon stare, and an image of Pearce crushing David Arquette's skull from behind with a sledge the size of a beer keg – turn out to be completely incidental to the story. The blonde guy is just a minor character; the head-smashing is a dream sequence. Those two bits make the movie seem far more interesting than it truly is.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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