Hyped Cannibal Thriller ‘Raw’ Is Much More Than Just a Gorefest

In Movies & TV by April Snellingsleave a COMMENT

For those who don’t follow such things, the French-Belgian cannibal drama Raw is one of the most eagerly anticipated genre titles of 2017. Since its enthusiastic reception at Cannes last year, the film has earned rapturous reviews from genre and mainstream critics alike, even as it reportedly inspired walkouts and fainting spells among viewers with less durable constitutions.

Headlines like that can be as much of a millstone as a boon, so Raw enters its wide release with expectations that could sink a lesser film. And while it’s neither as groundbreaking nor as transgressive as viewers have been led to expect, it’s an unqualified success for its writer-director (Julia Ducournau, making her feature debut) and largely unproven young cast.

Though Raw piles on the gruesome makeup effects and sinister atmospherics, it has more in common with coming-of-age tales and even teen comedies than traditional horror films. The story centers on Justine (Garance Marillier, also notching her first feature credit), a virginal and devoutly vegetarian teenager entering her freshman year at the world’s most disturbing veterinary school. Her parents, who also attended the school, deliver her to the grim, gray campus and supposedly into the care of her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who’s nowhere to be found.

College life immediately throws Justine a curve ball. She was expecting a female roommate but is instead assigned to bunk with a young, gay Muslim man named Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella). Before she can unpack her things, Justine and her fellow freshmen are whisked off by masked upperclassman to a bacchanalian hazing ritual that culminates in the goriest baptism this side of Carrie. She finally meets up with Alexia, who has embraced all the debauchery that college life can offer. At Alexia’s insistence, Justine participates in one last rite of initiation: eating a raw rabbit kidney. It’s her first taste of meat, but it certainly won’t be her last.

The hunger that’s awakened in Justine is immediate and undeniable, and she’s driven to consume meat even as her body seems to reject it. It isn’t long before Raw conflates Justine’s new diet with her inevitable sexual awakening. As she chows down on stolen hamburgers and raw chicken, she evolves from a doe-eyed innocent to a sultry predator, stalking the hypermasculine students who once intimidated her.

Female adolescence as horror show is territory that’s been successfully mined in countless movies; Raw belongs to the same tradition that produced Ginger Snaps, May, and Excision, to name a few. But Raw’s innovation, buoyed by Ducournau’s remarkable confidence behind the camera, is to keep the story firmly grounded in its female perspective. It doesn’t have so much as a passing interest in how men feel about Justine’s burgeoning sexuality and every-increasing aggression; she is both prey and predator, and the title could refer to Marillier’s performance as much as Justine’s culinary choices.

To an extent, Raw earns its reputation for flaunting taboos and pushing boundaries. The set piece that bisects the film into two distinct halves is a brilliantly orchestrated, show-stopping symphony of body horror and black humor that announces Ducournau as a gifted stylist and a major new talent. Don’t expect an endurance test, though—Raw offers a few stomach-turning moments, but it’s gorgeous and engaging far more often than it’s repulsive or confrontational. Ducournau seems to take more inspiration from the French New Wave of the 1960s than their gory New Extremity descendants.

It’s also a remarkably uncynical movie—it’s essentially a coming-of-age story about a young woman learning to navigate social bounds in accordance with her own evolving but ever-present moral center and struggling to establish an identity beyond her family’s shadow. In spite of its attention-grabbing depictions of cannibalism and, er, energetic sex, the film is at its best when it’s exploring the thorny relationship between the sisters. Alexia knows a thing or two about Justine’s new dietary requirements, and the beating, red heart of the story is the complex bond between them. Justine idolizes her big sister, even as she’s repulsed by her actions; Alexia loves and protects the younger girl, but also resents and exploits her. It’s a poignant and insightful exploration of sisterhood, and one that I wish the movie could’ve spent even more time fleshing out.

Raw opens at Regal Downtown West Cinema 8 on Friday, April 7.

April Snellings is a staff writer and project editor for Rue Morgue Magazine, which reaches more than 500,000 horror, thriller, and suspense fans across its media platforms. She recently joined the lineup of creators for Glass Eye Pix's acclaimed audio drama series Tales from Beyond the Pale, an Entertainment Weekly “Must List” pick that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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