Dir. Antonia Bird
Czeck Republic-United Kingdom-USA
Film #30, for Tuesday 30th October, of Halloween 31 For 31
It is sad to think that to have a film for this season directed by a woman, I have to specify a slot in the season to do so, as it slowly closes, when I should have gotten a few in the 31 selections without any specific design to have a gender balance but because there are enough films in existence. I could have had a whole season of 31 works all directed by men just by coincidence, which is startling when I consider it more and more, and while every aspect of film making is just as importance and can be contributed to by women, especially in the case with Ginger Snaps (2000) (Review Here) and its screenwriter, the obvious disparity despite the many women who are making films now is disorientating. Thankfully there are many existing female directors since the beginning of cinema and they are growing in quantity, but the vaster amount of films directed by males that dwarfs it is still a great deal to take into consideration. The fact that, as a male writing this, these words can be interpreted as patronising adds a further problem, in that the apparent disparity, even if it’s a little off from reality, is liable to make film viewers and critics pay more attention to a director’s gender than her work and its merit. I have always viewed gender politics through the metaphor of an unmarked minefield, the path unknown and the ground within a step liable to detonate and harm anyone on multiple sides. Considering the Millennium was ten years ago, the fact that we’ve yet to get a balance in gender within a single global industry like cinema let along remove the lingering bigots and glass ceilings is embarrassing. I can thankfully say that Antonia Bird, in terms of a director, created a film called Ravenous which deserves immense merit by the film’s own qualities. That it slipped into obscurity is a cruel and pathetic act by fate.
Set in 1847 during the Mexican-American War, a soldier (Guy Pierce) is sent to an isolated fort consisting of a skeleton crew and a potential new page in his life where nothing will happen for a long while except getting drunk or being bored for years of his career. Bursting this potential life is a stranger Colquhoun (Robert Carlyle) who stumbles to the fort frost bitten by the torrential snow fall outside and claiming to be a survivor of a party that descended into cannibalism. Warned by one of the Native American members of the fort about the legend of the Windigo, men who become powerful from eating other’s flesh and developing an endless hunger for eating other people, the soldiers at the fort will find themselves dwindling in number and suspicious food substances in the stew.
Within the first image of the film of two quotations on a black screen, Ravenous stands out as much as a black humoured piece as well as a horror film set in 19th century America. Set in a period of American history, off to the side of the Western Expansion of immigrants usually depicted and before the Civil War, which is fresh for me to see onscreen, this immediately starts as an engaging blend of the macabre and the sickly humoured. With a small cast of various nationalities, it has the closed sense of isolation fitting for the story, within the yet-open expanses of the landscape around them, and adding a sense of the dramatic of theatre without sacrificing the fullness of a cinematic work. The story itself is also a fascinating blend of mythology and the tropes of the western, British perspective and the American culture blending into an outsider’s viewpoint of the country without descending into an arch pastiche. Even with the upscaling levels of violence and humour, there is never a sense that one is viewing an over-gritty imitation or descending into clichés of westerns. That it is set in a period where the variety of immigrants was prominent in unchartered land, also allowed an actor as talented as Robert Carlyle to work with his normal accent, adds a sense of the lawless where the country was yet to fully form as the United States of America and these acts of cannibalism could go completely unknown by the existing populous. The acting is solid as well, not just from Pierce and Carlyle, but from the whole of the cast.
Continuing the analysis of music scores I have done multiple times in this season of reviews, the score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn is exceptional by itself as with the other great soundtracks I have talked about. Albarn may be immediately known for his music career – Blur, Gorillaz and his many other projects – but Michael Nyman is a very well regarded musical composer, his most famous work with Welsh director Peter Greenaway, his eclectic and unconventional work matched by a specific pristine sounding use of string instruments that is Nyman’s trademark until they fell out after the production of Prospero’s Books (1991). My musical knowledge of Albarn is very limited, but the folk and blues rock influences sound clearly like his contributions, while Nyman’s use string compositions blends effortlessly with it to create something that stands out. When the shift to the scenes of growing intensity take place - director Bird using editing or lack thereof and the acting of Pierce or Carlyle to depict growing insanity as the starting pieces that work fully - its blending of types of music prevents it from becoming invisible but is put together so that it supports the visuals and acting fully.
It’s relegation to being a under viewed gem is tragic considering it stands out in terms of quality and the individuals involved in various areas of the production. That it is as much a British made horror film too also adds to the disappointment that a great genre from our country, partially shot in the oppressive yet beautiful Eastern European countryside, is forgotten when disappointing and minor ones get credit. That Bird went back to television, her career before involving TV series and a couple of films, is also sad as this showed a director who could have progressed to films just as good or greater. If this review can introduce more people to this film, it could hopefully improve its status.