March 7, 2017 Raw (Movie Review)
There is something about cannibalism that is more than just off putting or gross: it disturbs most of us on a much deeper level; a level reserved for the most odious of the inhumane that goes down to the bone. Its practice is taboo in nearly all of human culture and as such, it has always been a reliable subject for Horror.
Far from simply a shock movie, the new French Horror film Raw is a brilliant and original take on the classic subject that will nonetheless leave more than a few viewers revulsed. Shown at Cannes, TIFF, London Film Festival, as well as Fantastic Fest in 2016, Raw was screened at Sundance Film Festival on January 22nd and finally comes to select theaters in the U.S.A. on March 10, 2017 via Focus World prior to broader release later in the spring.
Written and directed by Julia Ducournau (Junior 2011, Mange 2012) in her feature length debut, Raw is at its core a coming-of-age story centering on a young woman named Justine – played by Garance Marillier (Solo Rex 2014, Hotaru 2016) – who is about to start her first year of veterinary school. Shy, quiet, and awkward, Justine visibly feels the weight of social anxiety in her new environment.
She also holds herself to a high academic standard and feels great pressure to perform at the top level in her classes. The one positive from the start at the school is the presence of her older sister Alexia, played by Ella Rumpf (War 2014, Tatort 2016). Alexia has already been through the first year of school and is the only person Justine can rely on at her new home.
We learn that Justine is a strict vegetarian, something that is a strong family tradition. During one of the many rookie hazing rituals, the first year students are lined up and forced to eat raw meat in front of the second years. Justine refuses to partake and is admonished by her sister, who Justine learns, to her dismay, has abandoned the vegetarian lifestyle.
This horrifies Justine, but Alexia and the other more senior members of the school will not budge and let Justine out of it. Exasperated and not wanting to be a social outcast, Justine relents and consumes the bloody flesh. This is the pivotal moment that triggers something inside Justine: a gradual, cumulative hunger for meat that becomes very scary, very quickly.
Justine is soon overcome by an insatiable bloodlust that runs so deep that it keeps her up at night in physical pain. She voraciously consumes raw meat from her refrigerator and when that runs out, she looks for other ways to feed the hunger. She also develops a more confident and outgoing persona, though not for the reasons of simple socializing.
Her roommate Adrien, played by Rabat Nait Oufella (Nocturama 2016, The Class 2008), is the only other person she has any sort of friendship with. Adrien is a typical young, college-age guy with a penchant for parties and casual sex, but is a decent fellow who cares for Justine. He is in many ways a measuring stick for Justine as she comes into her true self physically, socially, and sexually.
Raw is so much more than a cannibal movie. It is a very engaging story with strong characters and performances to match. Marillier gives an outstanding performance as Justine, conveying every last emotion she goes through perfectly. She is relatable from the start and has an excellent character arc that the audience will be with the entire film. Rumpf is great as Alexia, serving as the perfect foil for Justine with her confident, wild nature. The relationship between the sisters feels very genuine with natural ups and downs, arguments and reconciliation, and is one of the strongest parts of the movie.
The gore factor here is strong but not ham-handed as is typical of the sub-genre. Dissection classes, labs with dead animals, and even the shots of raw meat are all passively gross, but are greatly exacerbated by the context of the story and the hair-raising ambiance Ducournau so effectively delivers. If the reports of audience members vomiting, passing out, and being otherwise out of sorts at screenings of this film are true, it is likely from scenes like these. That is not to say there is not violence. Justine, as well as Alexia, struggle as any addict does, with scenes of tense resistance and also moments of weakness. The hunger that consumes them becomes so strong that it can induce mindless frenzies, and the ladies are left to survey the damage when coming to their senses.
Raw is everything a good Horror movie can be: an original take on a subject that too easily falls into the derivative. Ducournau works magic by weaving it into a story that explores themes of identity, society, maturity, sexuality, and so much more. One of the best original screenplays for Horror in recent memory, Raw is a nearly flawless ride that is unrelenting, unforgiving, and builds to an outstanding ending that will have audiences squirming delightfully. A stellar job by Ducournau in her feature length debut, Raw will be a solid contender for Horror Film of the Year 2017. CrypticRock gives Raw 5 out of 5 stars.