** 1/2Stars
(US 1999)

Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones

Directed by Antonia Bird

Writing credits: Ted Griffin

Twentieth Century Fox * 100 minutes

A great dark comedy is difficult to do well. Some succeed magnificently (DR. STRANGELOVE); some fail miserably (VERY BAD THINGS); most muddle somewhere in between. In this vast middle-muddle, we can include RAVENOUS, a strange little film that I believe is in wide release in the U.S. only because of the current clout of Scottish actor Robert Carlyle (THE FULL MONTY).

In 1847, a period of Manifest Destiny, settlers moved across the United States, relentlessly expanding the relatively new nation's boundaries. Into this expansion is introduced Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT). His cowardice during a bloody Mexican-American War battle, in which he played dead and allowed his men to fight around him while he lay under a pile of dead soldiers, their blood dripping into his mouth, has resulted in banishment to Fort Spencer, a remote military outpost that serves as a Sierra Nevada, California waystation for western travelers.

Fort Spencer is populated by a small group of undistinguished soldiers, including commanding officer Hart (Jeffrey Jones), a man of no particular distinction who uses great books as nutcrackers; Toffler (Jeremy Davies of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN), a babbling, Renfield-like character who serves as the fortís personal emissary to the Lord; former veterinarian and current alcoholic Knox (Stephen Spinella), who is the closest the installation has to a doctor; Reich (Neal McDonough, looking like one of the VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED kids grown up), the only credible soldier in the group; and the group's cook, Cleaves (David Arquette), whose fondness for Native American culture extends solely to "loco weed" and peyote.

Into this cast of cartoonish characters appears a mysterious stranger, Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), a half-starved Scottish immigrant who had been traveling with a group of settlers until they became snowbound. Colqhoun begins to spin a tale of Donner Party-like horror; of snowbound settlers who run out of food and are forced to consume one another. In an act of cowardice not unlike that of John Boyd, he fled.

We learn about an old Indian myth called Weendigo, which states that a man who eats the flesh of another steals that personís strength and spirit. The hunger for human flesh becomes a craving that escalates until death is the only escape.

The film deals with Boyd and his colleagues as they become intimately familiar with the Weendigo legend after Colqhoun reveals an astonishing secret. Filmed in the Czech Republic by Anthony B. Richmond, its wintry lyricism is reminiscent of Sam Raimi's A SIMPLE PLAN and the languid 1991 World War II film A MIDNIGHT CLEAR, but it is more tightly paced than either.

The acting is uniformly strong, particularly Robert Carlyle. I recently saw Michael Winterbottom's 1994 BBC film GO, NOW in which Carlyle portrays another of his trademark elfin, winsomely adorable, poignantly suffering working class blokes -- this one suffering from multiple sclerosis. In RAVENOUS, he revives his more malevolent side, reprising some of his Begbiee character from TRAINSPOTTING, but this time with a Mansonesque twist. Carlyle is starting to show that he can show both range and depth in his characterizations. Here, he is both riveting and downright chilling.

Also of particular note is Jeremy Davies, who appears to be turning into one of those chameleonic actors who may never achieve the recognition he deserves because he never looks the same in any two films. His Toffler, a deranged holy man, confuses the issue temporarily as to whether he, or Colqhoun, is more bizarre.

Guy Pearce, last seen as the straight-arrow cop in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, has a Val Kilmer-like inscrutability here. Boyd is not much of a character, but Pearce effectly conveys his internal conflict. Jeffrey Jones, one of the more ubiquitous character actors in the business, imbues Hart with humor, completely throwing the viewer off-track.

RAVENOUS is difficult to categorize. It is being marketed by Fox (particularly at its Web site) as a dark comedy about cannibalism (a difficult challenge under the best of circumstances), but while it is certainly dark, it is only sporadically a comedy. Its relentless gore often detracts from the occasionally funny or sardonic line, and indeed is only for those with strong stomachs -- or those receptive to the idea of becoming vegetarians, because you will never want to eat stew again.

RAVENOUS  official site

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