Released a year before the turn of the Millennium – a year which drew its primary significance as a milestone from being an anniversary of Jesus’ birth – Antonia Bird’s Ravenous took us on a darkly comic journey into that most sinister yet persistent aspect of the human condition; cannibalism. What is to be noted though, is that the film clearly foregrounds the fact cannibalism is not just a literal act, committed by black-eyed psychopaths in the American wilderness, it is the metaphorical process of manifest destiny, of the consumption of lands and human energy for profit that would underwrite the world that birthed our own 21st century world.
The fact our dominant economic system is predicated on the cannibalistic exploitation of human energy has arguably never been more overt – and yet it remains ideologically obscured. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have told you in no uncertain terms that they don’t care if you or your loved ones die, just as long as you don’t derail the economy by staying home too long during the Covid-19 outbreak – but their popularity has boomed throughout this crisis.
Partially I think that’s because their ideology has drilled it into us that we can only ever expect these majestic alphas, these apex predators to revert to type. They got to the top of the pyramid through ruthless predatory behaviour, of course, and you have to revere that; it’s a dog-eat-dog world, after all. Except dogs don’t eat other dogs – and we need desperately to learn how to see through such platitudes as they ‘naturalise’ such despicable and utterly preventable behaviour. It’s for that reason that this Easter, we’re taking a look back at a forgotten work of savage satire; Antonia Bird’s Ravenous.
Without publishing spoilers, the plot delivers some brilliant food for thought. Second Lieutenant Boyd (Guy Pearce) is stationed in a remote outpost as a result of his actions during America’s military annexation of Texas. This is a punishment for an act of cowardice – yet it is also a reprieve as his masters acknowledge this act served them, making him a pathetic kind of hero in their eyes.
On arrival at his new station, Boyd’s past role in conquest, expansion and consumption on behalf of the USA position him uniquely for his first encounter with the myth of the Wendigo. Boyd is told by George, the camp’s Native American scout, that a man who eats the flesh of his enemy is cursed with an insatiable hunger for more; and the more they consume, the further they transition into something entirely inhuman. While others are quick to write this off as out-dated mysticism, Boyd takes more notice when George points out, “White man eats the body of Jesus Christ every Sunday.”
There is something about Hollywood’s recent fascination with the Wendigo that borders on cultural appropriation – particularly in 2013’s god-awful The Lone Ranger – where the white settler monopolises the metaphorical wisdom of the noble Native American in order to consume more mindfully. This is not one of those times.
Ted Griffin’s fabulously grizzly script – a witty blend of cannibalistic innuendo and ideological exploration – is delivered with an addictive fervour by Robert Carlyle’s Colquhoun, whose eyes contain by the same primitive blood-lust behind those of the shark in Jaws; lifeless, black, “like a doll’s eyes.” The contrast between Colquhoun and Boyd is important – it is not just a warning to Boyd of what he may become – it becomes increasingly apparent that one is a simple reflection of the other. The difference is, only one is repulsed by what he sees.
As we continue on Boyd’s journey, a realisation occurs that his simple Liberalisation will not be enough. There is something within him instilled throughout his life, from his time as a soldier to his inevitably Christian upbringing, during both of which an acceptance of consuming human energy for one’s own survival and prosperity was normalised; he is cursed by a monstrous ideological “common sense” lurking inside him, which his journey teaches him must be destroyed. It is therefore a hero’s journey like no other, and one I would encourage you to follow to its end (as well as finding the whole soundtrack – frustratingly absent from Spotify – which is a masterful fever-dream of classical orchestral bluster from Michael Nyman and driving modernised paranoia from Damon Albarn).
Despite the Covid-19 lock-down, many religious practices are cleared to continue as if nothing were going on. Part of this might come from the ideological function consuming the ‘flesh’ of Christ plays in normalising the cannibalistic exploitation of capitalism – part of it no doubt comes from the fact Easter gives us all a chance to further indulge in the bounties this exploitation provides. As we tear into the chocolate eggs, rabbits and pagan fertility symbols appropriated to symbolise the dead and reborn flesh of Christ, we buy into this process.
We purchase the spoils of exploitation and for a brief moment our pupils dilate and all is right with the world. There’s something that’s been instilled in all of us, just waiting to get out. We have a choice – perhaps a less literal choice than that of Boyd – but nonetheless a choice, whether to indulge or to destroy that ideological urge.
This post was reworked from an original article published on the Hollywood Hegemony blog.