Writer/Director: Shia LaBeouf; From the Memoir by: Saffron Mangiopel; Cast: Michael Fassbender, Elle Fanning, Fin Seekel, Laetetia Baldwin, Summit Arapetian, Nike Doukas.
A mere decade ago, the prospect of a mainstream film with a sympathetic practicing cannibal at its center was nearly unthinkable; now, with financing from the Inclusive Consumption Society, such a film arrives, provoking only scattered protests from a faltering movement transparently laboring to console itself.
Of course, what was scandalous ten years back, when Saffron Mangiopel’s memoir-cum-polemic-cum-groundbreaking-cookbook was first published, is frankly a bit ho-hum today. Resource depletion in the developed world is no longer a terrifying specter, but a grinding fact of life. Our fitful, bygone yearnings for an egalitarian nation look touchingly childlike in retrospect. Very few of us today would condemn an under-resourced family’s decision to shrink its consumption footprint by bi-directionalizing its food chain presence.
I’m tempted to write two reviews, then: one of the film as it imagines itself to be (a daring slap in the face to polite bourgeois sensibilities); the other of the film that, perhaps somewhat inadvertently, has emerged: a gentle, carefully observed story of one woman’s journey from callow gastro-tourist to committed full-spectrum omnivore. But I’ll try to ignore the chasm between the film as it wishes it were and the film as it is, and focus on the latter.
Director Shia LaBeouf, returning to fictional live-action after finally uploading 2032’s full-year-length unedited Google glass experiment Follow Me, sensibly excises the non-narrative components of Mangiopel’s literary genre-bender (aside from an effectively mouth-watering opening-credits sautéing sequence). Serving the Underserved: A Recovering Vegetarian’s Quest to Forge Her Link in the Lateral Food Chain, focused, naturally enough, on Mangiopel’s personal transformation (even as it plainly sought to raise awareness about the bureaucratic obstacles to responsible intra-species ingestion). LaBeouf broadens the story’s scope, allotting more than half his precious minutes to the telling of the other side of the tale: the plight of the Wendigos.
Abe Wendigo, played with tautness and cunning by silver fox Michael Fassbender, is the aging patriarch of a destitute California Central Valley family, descended from successful farmers but laid low by decades of extreme weather events and dried-up aquifers. Fierce, proud and morally complex, Wendigo schemes to bait-and-switch Mangiopel (Elle Fanning), a naïve first-time buyer consumed by the prospect of consuming his strapping, prime-aged only son (newcomer Fin Seekel, scrumptious indeed).
Of course, perpetrators of such illegal replacement schemes face challenges greater than concocting persuasive manmeat substitutes —the real trick is permanently disappearing the putative main course. But before Wendigos pere and fils get too far in their journey down the oven-escapee underground railroad, the story takes a turn. I won’t reveal whether the Wendigos carry through with their planned deceit; I’ll just say that the film, much more so than the memoir, chronicles Abe Wendigo’s discovery of a depth of generosity—and, one might say, tenderness—that neither he nor we imagined he possessed.
Indeed, the film’s deep humanity is felt in the way it steers clear of blaming this family, or by extension the many subprime families they presumably resemble, for failing to secure adequate resourcing before choosing to reproduce. In LaBeouf’s moral landscape, what matters is the journey forward, not the path one took to get here.
If the film is hard on anyone, it’s the emerging global-omnivore set—our finickiness about sourcing, our occasionally self-serving concern with fair compensation for the consumed, the revival in some quarters of a (let’s face it) primitive worldview that grants quasi-magical powers to metabolized heart ventricles and prefrontal cortices. Fanning, rumored to be a convert herself, affectionately satirizes the neuroses and excesses of the contemporary urban anthro-predator.
Part of the startling appeal of the memoir was that Mangiopel didn’t fit our then-current stereotype of the full-spectrum consumer—a demographic once dominated by the male, Republican and rich. As a liberal, lesbian content producer, Mangiopel’s very public decision to become an early adopter of the lateral-consumption lifestyle was a tipping point for the mainstreaming of the movement. Witnessing the stages of her conversion—her dawning recognition that the old write-a-check model of assisting the unfortunate only creates interlocking systems of dependence—is engrossing and instructive. What Abe Wendigo really wants, after all, is what we all want: a shot at dignity. One of this film’s accomplishments is to confirm, subtly but clearly, that unearned access to resources, while technically life-sustaining, is rarely soul-sustaining.
We may wish for a world that lets every inhabitant procreate at their whim and die of natural causes—but it’s not the world we live in. Clinging to a simplistic and time-worn humanist fantasy serves no one. Artists like Mangiopel and LaBeouf choose to abandon sentiment and explore with rigor: What are the ways we can realistically nourish each other?
Not that all is copacetic between collaborators. Mangiopel has publicly slammed LaBeouf’s decision to introduce an undercurrent of erotic tension to the pivotal scene in which the anthropophage initiate goes to “meet her meat,” as she waggishly phrases it. No doubt her outrage is honestly felt, but that doesn’t make it justified; like many authors before her, Mangiopel may not be the most reliable interpreter of her own work. A quick kindlesearch turns up seven instances of the phrase “sinewy arms” in her single volume (three each for “meaty thighs” and “tight glutes”, for what it’s worth). In interviews, she openly acknowledges her objectification of young Master Wendigo, but argues that it was entirely clinical, and an important part of her personal growth towards fully informed consumer.
Whatever the merits of her case, onscreen it would be hard to avoid eroticism if you tried. Indeed, Fanning’s Mangiopel appears to be trying—which, as with most attempts to smother passion, merely fans the flames. Seekel plays off her smoldering reticence beautifully—rejecting any hint of self-pity, his supple features register a swirl of defiance, pride, and amused recognition of the predator’s inconvenient attraction to her prey.
Consumed clocks in at well under two hours. Some will question the choice to tell a complex story at such a breakneck pace. But it’s enlightening to step away from today’s standard 13-hour format, and remember how much power we used to pack into a hundred minutes of well-crafted storytelling. Admittedly, with so much to tell and so little time to tell it, the film drives forward somewhat relentlessly, only rarely repeating important plot points, and, strikingly, eliminating sponsor-blasts and tweetbreaks entirely; for an old film buff, this is great nostalgic fun, but obviously will entail some attention span recalibration for the general public.
It’s worth the restraint. Consumed ends up succeeding despite its intentions. Where it aims to be a boldly candid take on a forbidden topic, it succeeds by being knowing and wry about a settled matter. Detractors may call it ironic that Mangiopel’s journey towards embracing this unfortunate family’s full humanity was facilitated by her decision to eat one of its members. It’s characteristic of LaBeouf’s steely moral focus that he doesn’t flinch from such complexity. The result is consuming indeed.
Leo Marks is a theater actor based in LA. He’s won an Obie and some LA Weekly Awards, and he helped start New York’s Elevator Repair Service Theater Company. He writes fiction, too.