An immersive and artfully repulsive study in what might be called “Appalachian gothic,” Chris Sullivan’s Consuming Spirits ferociously amalgamates Harvey Pekar’s sad-sack Ohio realism and language-play with the gnarly dreaminess of early-‘90s animators like Wendy Tilby and Henry Selick. (The latter’s cut-out tour-de-force Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions is directly referenced by a pair of scissors who ever so briefly come to life.) The product is a sprawling, slithering, stream-of-consciousness tale set in a small, rural Northeastern town overstuffed with risible background details, hideous human forms, and choked irony. The local Catholic church, for example, is watched over by a gun-toting nun who’s quick to direct visitors to a collection box reading “Prayers are not gratis”; deer stumble out of leafless, sinister woods licking whisky bottles, seemingly aware of their imminent fate-by-firearm; a weary newspaper designer illustrates a quaint story about hedge walls with a graphic crime-scene photograph. (“Isn’t death the ultimate privacy blind?” he protests to his less-than amused editor.)
Putrescence in all its forms—whether corporeal, psychological, or catalyzed by the frequent imbibing of alcohol (thus the deceptively lofty title)—is Sullivan’s primary subject, and inhabiting his moribund, rust-belt dreamland are middle-aged quasi-bumpkins whose past traumas have seemingly caused cutaneous sepsis. A crinkly, flabby-cheeked woman named Gentian Violet, who moonlights as a reporter for her local newspaper, suffers from perpetual subconjunctival hemorrhage splotches; her sort-of beau, the typesetter Victor Blue, has a cavernous, marionette face and indolent eyelids that shine drunkenly pink. These focal characters’ bodies, and those of their friends and neighbors, are moreover comprised of dozens of colored cut-out pieces that seldom collaborate organically; their multi-jointed fingers and arms move with a flimsy, puppet-like floppiness, as though leprous. Watching the purposeful lack of grace in Sullivan’s designs, it’s startling to think that two-dimensional stop-motion animation has so seldom been used to depict decaying human bodies before, given how adroitly the technique’s tics approximate senescence. The herky-jerky motility of the movie’s sad figures suggests rheumatism and arthritis, while the flat, bulbous planes of on-screen action resemble near-sighted visions of one’s surroundings.
The ambulatory plot follows the tangentially related lives of Gentian, Victor, and the gardening enthusiast-cum-radio personality Earl Grey through a few eventful winter days wherein Victor searches for his estranged mother. Sullivan also, however, suggests further dimensions of anguish by crosscutting between this timeline and a hauntingly convoluted backstory represented with fluid, shape-shifting pencil sketches. The discursive flitting between visual styles becomes vertiginous at times; a single phrase or sip of liquor can provoke a clumsily stop-motion animated character to delve into a free-associative, traditionally animated reverie. But the crisscrossing internal monologues to which we’re privy, with their circumlocution of pain and suggestions of healing, are rendered with shrewdly Freudian spectacles that seldom slacken the film’s pace. Ferns sprout seductively out of cupped palms; two extramarital lovers grow so large that they literally crush the homes of their respective families; hunters shoot down deer that then land in the snow and rot from carcass to skeleton within seconds.
It’s beautifully debatable whether any of the above actually takes place within the film’s narrative reality, or whether these are expressionistic metaphors. In a bold storytelling move, Sullivan’s grand finale is a protracted flashback that provides a contextual framework for all of the surreal material he’s presented to us so far in single, baffling servings, yet the layers of craftsmanship are such that this explication fails to castrate any of the director’s uncanny tableaux. The lyricism, finally, is a necessary indulgence. The film’s detail-cluttered surface would appear fatuously grotesque were it not for the hazy histories of hurt that inform its texture; as it is, the skeletons in these characters’ closets are such that they make the impromptu amputation of a nun’s gangrenous leg by a non-physician seem perfectly logical. This is the rare animated feature whose subtext is as rich as its sensuality, even if the latter is so often fixated on the putrid. Sullivan’s mature willingness to confront ugliness head-on while so fearlessly following the stray, inebriated thoughts of his characters makes Consuming Spirits not only a monstrous visual achievement, but one of the most uniquely humanistic animated features of all time.