Macabre doesn't begin to describe the sly, grisly Grand Guignol horror of "Ravenous," which has all the ingredients for a cult film success but most definitely is not for everyone. It's stylish, sophisticated, venturesome--to say the least--and it's not the project you would have thought Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle would choose to consolidate the acclaim and recognition that "L.A. Confidential" and "The Full Monty," respectively, brought them.
But then you have to remember that before he played an ambitious, straight-arrow L.A. cop, Pearce first came to attention as one of the dragsters in "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and that Carlyle made his name as the psychopathic Begbie in "Trainspotting." "Ravenous" offers further assurance that the handsome Pearce and the wiry Carlyle are not about to let themselves be typecast.
We first meet Pearce's Capt. Boyd at an elaborate meal celebrating a victorious battle in the Mexican-American War of 1847. Boyd had been overcome by cowardice, played dead and wound up under a pile of corpses to emerge as the unexpected hero of the charge. "Something . . . something happened to me," he mutters, unable to eat a hearty dinner, seeing in his steak the faces of the dead. His uncomfortably ambivalent status and demeanor gets him transferred to a California fort in the western Sierra Nevada, in the command of the witty Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones), who presides over a group of eccentrics straight out of a James Whale movie. Hart is doing a pretty good job of living with the paradox of having wanted to escape from everything only to want to escape the remote post.
The haunted-seeming Boyd has barely met the others, who include David Arquette's loopy cook Cleaves, Jeremy Davies' deeply religious Toffler, Stephen Spinella's boozy medico Knox and Neal McDonough's macho Reich, when Carlyle's Ives staggers to the fort, explaining that he is a member of a snowbound Donner-like party that was in fact forced to resort to cannibalism. He wants Col. Hart to lead an expedition to a cave, where he says two people in the party were still alive when he left them.
Director Antonia Bird and writer Ted Griffin, crediting Native American belief, envision--vividly, to put it mildly--a certain dire consequence of cannibalism, as that turns their film into an outrageous supernatural gore feast that they sustain with gruesome, gleeful ingenuity that will be kicky for some, a turnoff to others. They probably would like you to see the film as an allegory of All-American expansionist greed and pillage, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny carried to the extreme. That's more than a tad pretentious for what is at heart a high-class midnight movie that does leave us with the timeless notion that, since good and evil both lie within us, we may be forced to make a drastic choice between the two.
Starting with Pearce and Boyd, the cast plays with appropriate gusto, and "Ravenous' was shot superbly by Anthony B. Richmond in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, of all places, as well as the more familiar Durango, Mexico. Music is almost always crucial in a movie but never more so than here, and Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn's score, alternately blithe and ominous, actually seems to help drive and shape the narrative as well as set tone and mood.
* MPAA rating: R, for considerable gore and violence. Times guidelines: The film is entirely unsuitable for youngsters, even should they be accompanied by adults.
Guy Pearce: Capt. Boyd
Robert Carlyle: Colqhoun
Jeffrey Jones: Col. Hart
David Arquette: Cleaves
A Fox 2000 Pictures presentation. Director Antonia Bird. Producers Adam Fields, David Heyman. Executive producer Tim Van Rellim. Screenplay by Ted Griffin. Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond. Editor Neil Farrell. Music Michael Nyman & Damon Albarn. Costumes Sheena Napier. Production designer Bryce Perrin. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
In general release.