By Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 26, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

The case for cannibalism made by Ravenous — as taboo, as dietary option in extremis, and as metaphor for the voraciousness with which this country was settled in the 19th century — is not exactly clinched by the antics of Robert Carlyle. In this indigestible drama — part Edgar Allan Poe horror tale, part Monty Python let’s-eat-the-captain-for-dinner sketch — the small-boned Scot plays a mysterious stranger who wanders near-dead into a forlorn military outpost and tells a horrific tale echoing that of the historic Donner Party: His fellow travelers ran out of food, the dead among them became meat, he himself just barely escaped, and cripes, that stew smells good.

It’s immediately clear, though, that the man is a dangerous nutter. He wears a hat Chico Marx might have discarded as being de trop, he makes wonky hand gestures, he darts around like a vulture — and he’s so wee, so stringy, that if this is cannibalism, who needs the Zone diet? (He could eat the full monty and not gain an ounce.)

Ravenous is the work of Antonia Bird, whose own lust for pushing emotional and dramatic limits, evident in Priest and even in the interesting, failed teen-angst drama Mad Love, is the British director’s most vivid characteristic; her indie sensibility suits the acting styles of Jeremy Davies, Jeffrey Jones, Stephen Spinella, and David Arquette, all of whom play soldiers of motley stripe. But metaphor madness and a muddled script by novice Ted Griffin get the best of Bird here, as she hacks and slashes her way from carcass to carcass. (Also distracting: a self-conscious score by The Piano‘s Michael Nyman and Blur’s Damon Albarn that announces ”artsy gore on the way” before every scene of eviscerated human remains.) And as a cowardly brooder who becomes the hungry stranger’s moral reverse image, the usually charismatic Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential) more or less lies down in the snow, passive, letting the mayhem roll over him like he’s a lone sparerib and all the blood in bloody Ravenous is just so much barbecue sauce. C-

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  • Antonia Bird
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