Antonia Bird had a long career as a director, but she only made a handful of theatrical features. As far as I can tell, none of them went anywhere commercially. I think in part this is because her films don’t play by the rules that mainstream audiences are used to. Her movies just don’t fall into the usual categories.
Take Ravenous. It tells the story of a young soldier posted to a remote fort in California who narrowly escapes being eaten by a cannibal, only to later find himself becoming a cannibal. Ravenous is not a comedy, though it has moments of very black comedy. It’s not a western, though it has many of the elements that characterize westerns. And it’s not a horror movie, though a number of scenes are truly horrifying. Really it’s a morality play. The crux of the film is the main character’s choice between right and wrong.
The script, by Ted Griffin, begins with a battle in the Mexican-American War. We see the young soldier, Boyd, as he receives a medal and a promotion for single-handedly seizing a command post behind enemy lines. Later we learn the full story, and it beomes clear that Boyd isn’t the hero he appears to be. In fact he’s severely traumatized, and his commanding officer sends him to a remote outpost in the Sierra Nevadas.
This is where he encounters Calhoun, the only survivor of a party that tried to cross the Sierras in the dead of winter. At first it seems that Calhoun is the only member of the party that managed to escape when his companions turned to eating one another. But we soon find out that he’s the cannibal, and that he’s still hungry. We also learn that in eating his victims he acquires their strength and bravery. Calhoun tells Boyd of his transformation from a sickly, tubercular invalid to a healthy, virile predator. He plans to continue eating human flesh, and he invites Boyd to join him.
Calhoun’s character represents the savagery of nineteenth century American imperialism. He’s intelligent and cunning, and totally unapologetic about the fact that he eats human beings. In fact, he sees the practice as a sign of strength. Standing in a graveyard outside the fort, he speaks to Boyd of Manifest Destiny, explaining that this young, hungry nation must eat to grow. The first time we see Calhoun, he’s holding a small cross in his hand, and throughout the film he’s closely associated with this Christian symbol. For centuries, European nations had used evangelism as a pretext for slaughter and plunder, and the US continued that tradition in the nineteenth century. Christianity was perverted to justify war against the indigenous people who populated North America. At the film’s climax, Calhoun paints a cross on his forehead with blood. It’s not subtle, but it is effective.
The film’s design seems to have grown organically out of its themes. The story is mostly played out within the claustrophobic darkness of the fort or the enormous, snowy landscapes of the American West. Against this background of murky shadow and blinding white, we see the dull blue of the soldiers’ uniforms, the bright red of splattered blood, and occasionally the colors of the American flag as it curls in the breeze. This beautifully unified conception is the work of production designer Bryce Perrin. Using this visual framework, cinematographer Anthony Richmond paints a physical landscape that is overwhelmingly huge, while at the same time delineating a psychological landscape that is dark, cramped and terrifying. Sheena Napier’s costumes don’t just help define the characters, they also express the way the characters evolve as the story unfolds.
And these are unusual, challenging characters. Guy Pearce does an impressive job with Boyd, bringing us into his state of mind, allowing us to see these harrowing events through the eyes of this weak, scared, vulnerable man. But Pearce also makes clear that there’s a spark of strength in Boyd that allows him to take a stand against evil. As Calhoun, Robert Carlyle is both frightening and charismatic. This intelligent, articulate cannibal isn’t just a bloodthirsty monster. He believes in what he’s doing, and preaches eloquently on the subject. Sheila Tousey’s Martha speaks few lines of dialogue, but the actress imbues her character with a quiet, stoic strength. And Jeffrey Jones shows his consummate skill at playing offbeat roles, making the softspoken Col. Hart sympathetic, even when he becomes a cold-blooded killer. I can’t think of many actors who could handle the line, “It’s lonely being a cannibal. Tough making friends.”
The score is just as unusual as the rest of the movie, being credited to a young rock star and an established film composer. Damon Albarn uses traditional instruments to capture the psycho soul of these soldiers trudging through the vast isolation of the American wilderness. Michael Nyman’s orchestral cues are skilfully woven into the texture of the film, underlining the feeling of dread and paranoia.
Antonia Bird’s films didn’t follow the usual patterns, and didn’t offer comforting solutions. Her protagonists find themselves in difficult, overwhelming situations, and they don’t win easy victories, if it can be said they end up winning at all. And this is probably a large part of the reason why her theatrical features never found large audiences.
Bird died last October. She was a filmmaker who didn’t want to compromise, and she paid the price at the box office. It’s not easy to find her work, with some of her films being difficult or impossible to get hold of. This is a shame. She was a unique artist and a gifted director. Her films deserve to be seen.