Somewhere in Appalachia, idyll and decomposition cohabitate uneasily in the hearts and bodies of those who refuse to die, though they’re given every opportunity to choose death.
Consuming Spirits is a tour de force DIY animated epic about three middle-aged (and beyond) bumpkins whose lives intertwine along an autumnal, rusted out byway. Their futures are grim, their pasts haunt them in ways that seem to affect their physiognomy, and how those two periods interact informs their hypnotically tormented existence.
Earl Gray (voiced magnificently by Robert Levy) is something akin to the conscience of the town of Magguson. He writes folksy naturalist columns for the local newspaper and hosts a call-in show to advice residents on what they should do with their compost heaps. Gentian “Jenny” Violet is scatterbrained and put-upon, but represents what Magguson would term a career woman, working a number of odd jobs, one of which includes reporting for the same newspaper, where her pseudo-boyfriend Victor Blue also works as a layout artist prone to selecting inappropriately disturbing and violent graphics.
Their lives intersect as any likely would in a town of their size, though the longer Spirits goes on (and it does go on for a good while at 134 minutes), the more eerily intertwined their stories seem, until a gut-punching monologue in the eleventh hour ties things together explicitly, but not before most of the town’s residents have been given a chance to display their own unique deformities.
The rot that permeates every handmade frame of Spirits is no doubt in part due to the extraordinary length of time it took for animator Chris Sullivan to cobble his band of jaundiced misfits together. A true labor of deviant love, Sullivan’s film took almost 15 years to assemble. The film literally spans the analog-digital divide, and could thus serve as one of the latest-greatest memento mori for the tactility of physical media (if only it didn’t seem like at least a dozen more of those show up every year).
Sullivan’s characters are invariably meat-like in appearance. Their jowly, unkempt, sagging carrion physicality suggests the impending breakdown that awaits them all soon enough, which greatly informs the film’s wry sense of gallows humor. It’s akin to the Disney version of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.
It, of course, seems entirely appropriate to term Sullivan’s work as an “undertaking,” as I can think of few other animated works outside of, say, the films of Jan Svankmajer that are so convincingly crepuscular. Consuming Spirits has moonshine on its rotten breath, but its images are never less than intoxicating.