Ravenous (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Guy Pearce, Jeffrey Jones, John Spencer, David Arquette, Jeremy Davies
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Deleted Scenes, Trailer and TV Spot, Still Galleries

I like movies that don’t correspond to one particular genre. The kind of film that seems to be many different things at once. The problems with films that defy pigeonholing is that they are hard to market and they often go unnoticed by the public.
(Here’s a hint: If a movie’s poster features a big picture of nothing, i.e. "Ravenous," "Nightbreed," then the studio most likely didn’t know how to market it.) Such is the case with "Ravenous." The movie could be a western, a costume drama, a horror movie, or an action adventure. In truth, the film is all of these and a lot more. And the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD of "Ravenous" is the perfect way to view this unique film.

The easiest way to describe "Ravenous" is "Dances with Wolves" (minus the buffalo) meets "John Carpenter’s The Thing" (minus the alien) meets "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (minus the power-tools) meets "F-Troop" (minus Larry Storch). "Ravenous" opens in 1847, at the end of the Mexican-American war. We meet Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce of "L.A. Confidential") as he is receiving a medal for bravery. It seems that Boyd captured a Mexican fort all by himself. However, Boyd’s commander General Slauson (John Spencer) feels that Boyd acted out of cowardice and sends him to Fort Spencer as means of punishment.

Fort Spencer is located high in the Sierra-Nevada mountains of California and is covered in snow for much of the year. Boyd arrives at Fort Spencer and meets his new commanding officer Colonel Hart (Jeffrey Jones) and the strange crew that live there, including the ever-weird David Arquette and Jeremy Davies (who played the cowardly Upham in "Saving Private Ryan"). As Boyd is settling in to his new life and is trying to deal with his troubled past, a stranger, frozen and starving, arrives at the fort. The man’s name is F.W. Colquhoun (Robert Carlyle). Colquhoun reports that his wagon train got lost in the mountains and that they were forced to stay in a cave and resort to cannibalism in order to survive. Colquhoun states that the party’s leader, Colonel Ives, had gone mad and started killing everyone, which is why Colquhoun fled the cave to seek help.

Hart decides that the troop must seek out the cave to see if Ives or anyone else is still alive. As the group heads for the cave, it becomes clear that Colquhoun’s story may not be entirely true and there may be more to Boyd’s past than we had been lead to believe. From then on, a struggle ensues as each man must decide who to trust and who to fear.

Let me cut through the usual critical tap-dancing and say that the first 45-minutes of "Ravenous" are sheer brilliance. Directress Antonia Bird, who replaced original director Milcho Manchevski and had only six days to prepare for the film, creates an unbearable aura of tension. Given some of the off-beat things that happen early in the film, such as Guy Pearce’s character vomiting over the title credit, we know that this film isn’t going to have an ordinary story. It’s clear that there’s going to be something more than the story of a group of soldiers that help some stranded travelers. So, there’s great anticipation and suspense leading up to the scene at the cave. And even though I had a pretty good idea of what was going to transpire, I was still totally wrapped up in the moment.

This also leads to the major problem with "Ravenous." After the surprise is revealed, the movie loses much of its power. Following the cave scene, there is still 55 minutes of movie left. While the remainder of the film is entertaining, it never recaptures the momentum that it had in the beginning. The last third of the film reveals some minor shocks and surprises, but most of what was going to happen was easy to figure out beforehand.

Along with Bird’s skilled direction – she also directed the controversial "Priest" and the Drew Barrymore vehicle "Mad Love" – and the clever script by Ted Griffin, the unusual score by Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman add a great deal of texture to the movie. These days, it’s rare that the score of a film truly stands out, but here it does. While most composers would have filled "Ravenous" with music that reflects the time period, Albarn and Nyman use a wide variety of instruments, from synthesizers to distorted oboe samples, to help create the mood for the film. Despite the fact that the film was overlooked at the box-office, Albarn and Nyman should be recognized come Oscar time.

The great ensemble acting troupe assembled for "Ravenous" also contribute to its success. Guy Pearce, who looks nothing like he did in "L.A. Confidential", is very good as the brooding and confused Boyd. As the main character in the film, we must join him on his emotional journey and Pearce’s performance makes this an easy task. Carlyle essays the penultimate role as a frontier loony. The always-charming Jones is good as Hart, the bumbling commander who just wants to find an easy way to crack walnuts. The most intense performance in the film is delivered by Neal McDonough, who plays super-soldier Reich to the hilt, his gleaming ice-blue eyes hinting at an untapped madness.

The 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD of "Ravenous" is a Special Edition and holds many treasures. The film is presented in its original theatrical <$PS,widescreen> format of 2.35:1, but is sadly not <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs. The film’s framing is accurate and the <$PS,widescreen> image pays off during the shots of the beautiful mountain range. The picture is clear and shows very little grain. The transfer is very good, as no defects or scratches are evident in the source print. Despite the film’s dark subject matter, Bird has shot the film in realistic style. The colors reflected in this style are very true and the superb color balancing on the DVD help to enhance this.

The DVD’s audio is presented in <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 surround sound. The surround sound is put to good use during the battle sequences and the fight scenes. The audio does a good job of presenting the film’s excellent score, which I mentioned earlier.

The extras on the DVD are plentiful and vary widely in quality. The DVD features three separate audio commentaries. It is actually why it took so long for this review to be posted. It takes some time to watch a movie four times! The "Ravenous" DVD could be used by future releases as the template for the "Do’s and Don’t’s" of audio commentaries.

The first track features director Antonia Bird and composer Damon Albarn. Their comments are sparse and don’t give much insight into the making of the film. We learn that Bird replaced the original director and that the film was shot in Slovokia and Poland, but we are never told why this happened. There are many long silences where it’s obvious that they are simply watching the movie. Also, it’s illogical for the composer to discuss the music on an <$commentary,audio commentary>. He keeps pointing out specific pieces of music, but we can’t hear them because we’re supposed to be listening to his comments.

At the end of the commentary, they both reveal that they’ve never done one before and they will be better prepared next time. And how is this helping me? The second commentary is by screenwriter Ted Griffin and actor Jeffrey Jones. This commentary is much better. Griffin and Jones talk the entire time and tell many anecdotes about the making of the film. Griffin shares the backstory on how the script was developed and the problems involved in getting it to the screen. Jones shares scene-specific stories from the set and describes the working conditions. Both Griffin and Jones sound very comfortable doing the commentary and some of it is quite amusing. The third commentary is a solo outing by Robery Carlyle. Carlyle takes the word "commentary" too literally, as he just comments on certain things. His comments are few and far between and they are usually brief statements, such as "I like that shot." or "He’s a good actor." Thankfully, Carlyle’s commentary doesn’t begin until Chapter Four, when his character first appears. I realize that it’s not easy to get cast and crew together to do audio commentaries, but if it turns out to be worthless, do they still have to include it on the disc? I used to think that any running commentary was better than none, but my viewpoint is beginning to change.

The DVD also includes eight deleted scenes from the film, which have optional commentary by Bird. This is a nice feature, as the scenes are presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Some of the scenes are interesting, especially Reich sharing his reason for being at Fort Spencer, but others are just filler. A theatrical trailer and a TV spot are also part of the disc. It’s interesting how these two previews present the film’s story a little differently. There are two still galleries, one featuring costume design and the other set design.

It’s always a pleasure to discover a unique film and it’s even better to find it on a nicely presented DVD. "Ravenous" is a great movie that grips the viewer from the very beginning and doesn’t let go until the end. While the last third of the film can’t live up to the suspenseful beginning, the movie is entertaining and should thrill a cross-section of audiences due to its genre-hopping story. While some movies leave you wanting more, "Ravenous" was quite satisfying.