on March 19, 1999 by Tim Cogshell
   "It's lonely being a cannibal." This line from director Antonia Bird's "Ravenous" is delivered with such disturbing sincerity that it elicits both laughs and chills. This is an extremely dark comedy that defies every known marketing strategy--thus the bafflingly oblique trailers--yet it has a very simple premise: people make good eating.
   In reviewing the filmography of Ms. Bird (including 1995's "Mad Love" and 1993's "Safe"), one would be hard-pressed to find any indication of this particular sensibility, though in her 1994 film, "Priest," the titular young clergyman's crisis of faith amidst the dark world of incest is, in some ways, similar to the plight of Captain John Boyd ("L.A. Confidential's" Guy Pearce), the protagonist in this much less serious work.
   "Ravenous" begins in the middle of a raging battle during the War of 1812. Boyd is paralyzed with fear. It's all he can do to lower himself to the ground and play dead. He finds himself at the bottom of a pile of dead comrades, drenched in their blood. In an odd twist, what began with an act of cowardice ends with Boyd single-handedly capturing enemy headquarters. When questions arise about his heroism, Boyd is shipped off to a small fort in the wilds of Colorado. There, he becomes part of a small band of winter caretakers that include Colonel Hart (Jeffery Jones), Corporal Toffler (Jeremy Davies), Lt. Knox (Stephen Spinella) and an imbecile named Cleaves (David Arquette).
   Up to this point, the film has more in common with "Dances with Wolves" than it does with "Scream," which it ultimately resembles a good deal more before the credits roll. With the arrival and harrowing story of a stranger named Colqhoun ("The Full Monty's" Robert Carlyle), screenwriter Ted Griffin subtly shifts genres, and the brutal period war drama slowly becomes a darkly-drawn, blackly comic thriller, exploring both the pluses and minuses of eating your fellow man. On the upside, eating human flesh tends to reinvigorate the body and spirit. On the downside, when you live among cannibals, it's hard to get a good night's sleep.
   Bird's direction is taut, pausing at just the right moments to remind us that it's okay to laugh. On occasion, Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn's score is intrusive, but for the most part it supports the difficult material well, as does director of photography Anthony B. Richmond's claustrophobic cinematography. Starring Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Davies and Jeffery Jones. Directed by Antonia Bird. Written by Ted Griffin. Produced by Adam Fields and David Heyman. A Fox release. Black comedy/thriller. Rated R for gore and violence. Running time: 100 min
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