Ravenous (1999) Review

Everyone fears dying to some degree. I also think that some deaths are more preferable than others. For instance, I’d rather die peacefully in my sleep than be tortured to death. I suppose dying in the throes of sex wouldn’t be so bad either, but would probably be emotionally scarring for the girl. Considering all of the different ways to buy the farm, I think that being eaten definitely ranks as one of the worst ways to die.

Such is the theme in Ravenous. During a battle in the Mexican-American War, Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce) is mysteriously able to get behind enemy lines and eliminate enemy command. For his heroism, he’s reassigned to Fort Spencer in the icy Sierra Nevadas where he joins a skeleton crew of assorted soldiers and their Native-American help. Soon after his arrival, a desperate man named Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives at the fort recounting a harrowing tail of cannibalism. Apparently, his westward caravan was led astray by their guide — an army Colonel named Ives — who resorted to butchering the party when they ran out of food. The fort soldiers resolve to search for survivors and deal with Col. Ives, but before they leave, the Native-Americans warn them of the true superstition of the Wendigo: an insatiable, flesh-eating monster that men become when they consume the human body. It’s up to Boyd and company to bring Ives to justice if they can.

This is definitely a film carried on the shoulders of the bad guy. Col. Ives is everything you want in a villain. He’s sadistic, charming and his rhetoric makes just enough sense to put you on the fence about him. He’s also as creepy as he is malevolent, which is showcased when he’s introduced in the film. The performance in that scene is up there with Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter.

The hero, on the other hand, plays it a little too straight. I like Guy Pearce and I think he’s a very good actor, but in Ravenous he’s a little stiff. Maybe that’s the fault of the writing. Pearce’s character barely speaks until he gets to the fort. Typically, I’d give this performance the benefit of the doubt for character arc purposes. I’d expect to see this quiet, reserved man turn into human conflagration of rage by the end of the film, and while this happens to an extent, the curve feels more manufactured than organic. Still, Pearce’s performance is serviceable.

The same can be said about the production value of the film as a whole. At times, it looks phenomenal, especially in the early war scenes. Later, when the gore starts ramping up, things start looking a little less believable. While that’s generally a staple of the horror genre, the blood — for example — does sometimes look like thick cough medicine.

In all, Ravenous succeeds because of its ability to touch on the subconscious fears of violating mores and all of the attachments and value we give humans. This is perfectly illustrated when one soldier must consume a dead man to survive. The corpse has a silly grin on his face, propped up by all of humanity. I can’t help but feel that in eating another human being, I’m eating a bit of myself as well.