“The Man Who Ate Liberty Valance”: I’m at AmCon

on Ravenous, a cannibal Western with a Looney Tunes win-by-losing climax–yes, I loved it:

1999′s Ravenous turns up on a lot of lists of underrated horror movies. It’s hard to get people to take you seriously when your plot is, “Guy Pearce eats people in the Old West.” But now that I’ve finally taken advantage of “Ravenous”‘s availability through Netflix streaming, I can tell you: This movie is criminally underrated. It’s not just a creepy, haunting cannibal Western from the producer of “Donnie Darko,” although that sounds great to me; it’s also an exploration of the temptations of power and the acceptance of powerlessness.

The movie is set in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. Captain John Boyd (Pearce) was so terrified by battle that he played dead—and, posing as a corpse, he was dragged behind enemy lines, where he staged a one-man ambush. His superiors pin a medal on him, but make sure he knows how much they really despise him for his initial loss of nerve. They send him away to a remote California outpost.

Already in these first fifteen minutes so many of the movie’s strengths are on display. The music is distinctive—Western in style, much less plangent than most horror scores, imaginative and non-intrusive. Over the course of the movie it will become steadily more modern. The movie’s humor and self-awareness come through at the outpost, which is staffed by stock characters: the eccentric leader (Jeffrey Jones, feisty and fun), the praying man, the scarily enthusiastic killing machine, the drunk.

And from its first scenes “Ravenous” zeroes in on the two questions which will determine the film’s storyline: Whose stories are believed, whose versions of the truth are accepted? And is the moral life simply a choice between conquest and cowardice?

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About Eve Tushnet

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