Screens at CIFF: 10/16 & 10/19 & 10/22
Winner of the Chicago Award for best project by a Chicago filmmaker
World premiere: 23 April, 2012, Tribeca Film Festival

There is a moment in Consuming Spirits in which two characters, having just performed a rather indifferently-received set of songs at the only bar of note in their tiny rural town, try to figure out what they can do to attract attention. One of them suggests that what people seem to like is the raw, harsher sort of music, unpolished by too much technique; so maybe what they need to do is focus as hard as possible on being raw and unpolished themselves. There's not indication that the film's writer-director, Chris Sullivan, has anything nearly so leading as meta-commentary on his mind in this or any other moment, but the idea of leaning harder on rawness is as apt a description for this film itself as anything else I'd be able to come up with.

A labor of love made over the span of some 15 years, Consuming Spirits is an animated Gothic melodrama set in the crappy little town of Magnusson, in Pawkeghenny County, somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains of the eastern United States. It focuses on three people, all of them employed at the town's single newspaper: Earl Gray (Robert Levy), writes a column of gardening tips, a side project of his late-night radio show in which he solves callers gardening tips in the midst of free-flowing howls of despair, monologues too gloomy to qualify as rants, made tolerable only by his warm, if sickly baritone; Gentian Violet (Nancy Andrews), the head layout artist, living with a senile mother who makes it impossible to have even the barest scrap of a social life; and Victor Blue (Sullivan himself), a balding neurotic who works on layout only because nobody has the heart to fire him even after repeated attempts to point out that he's really bad at his job.

The connections between these characters go much deeper than just the casual acquaintanceship of coworkers; in fact, it is largely the piecing together of how far back they go, and under what circumstances, and what it has to do with the insane asylum on the edge of town, or with the nun Gentian hit while driving a bus and hid under bracken to die, only for Earl to find her and her take her back to his home, to nurse her. It's no spoiler to say that it is very, very dreary and unhappy for all involved, although the act of uncovering all of these truths works, in some way, to give them freedom, and on the tail end of 130 minutes of grim, even diseased imagery and plot points, Consuming Spirits does find a note of genuine uplift to send the viewer on their way.

Issues of plot aside, though, the thing that any viewer is likely to notice first is the striking, nearly unpremeditated style of the film, combining three entirely distinct media to represent three different frames of storytelling: flashbacks, though it takes some time to realise that's what they are, are done as pencil sketches on white paper, while exteriors are made with rough models populated by toys that are scooted along in deliberately jerky stop-motion animation. The bulk of the film is in the form of paper cut-outs animated like flat puppets, on a multiplane rig that makes it possible for Sullivan to focus on just one character or object at a time, when it suits him.

And such cut-outs! The character design in Consuming Spirits is astounding. It is the furthest thing from beauty, or anything else appealing and lovely, but it fits the story and the setting flawlessly, and it is unquestionably the puppets that drive the film's considerable volume of degraded, sick atmosphere. These are tangibly physical creations, looking pallid and scaly and raw, nothing like actual human beings and yet far more fleshy than anything made out of paper has any right to. The collision of animation styles makes the film unusual, but it's the design that makes it explode with mood, and the design is surely the first and most important takeaway for any viewer.

With the grotesque atmosphere thus set up through visuals, the torrid narrative feels more natural than it might do on its own merits; for there's quite a lot of extreme misery and suffering and isolation on display, enough to make you wonder if anybody in Magnusson knows what a smile looks like. The humor is either of the acidic, ironic sort, of in the form of tossed-ff visual gags buried in the backgrounds or on the pages of newspapers; meager little jokes like calling a nominally artsy porn video "Titty Cut Follies", for example. Which I don't say in the intention of slighting the design: it's the kind of animated film where a big part of the pleasure in watching it is looking out for all of those little touches and smirking for just a second as they move by.

But did you notice when I referred to the film's 130-minute running time? That's a lot of Gothic despair, particularly when married to the pestilential character design, and Consuming Spirits hasn't got nearly enough distinct content to fill its running time; virtually all of the plot, to speak of, comes in the form of one long ramble of exposition, and the rest is all a lingering mood piece, and boy, when the mood is this wintry and bleak, that's a lot of lingering.

Not that it ever ceases to be powerful: in fact, it's one of the clearest signs of the movie's strength that even after two hours, it's no more diluted than it was in the very beginning, when a particularly mournful folk song introduces us to the dour tone of the whole feature. That cuts both ways: it speaks to the strength of Sullivan's vision on one hand, while also making it awfully hard to regard watching the film as "fun" according to any register. The movie packs a wallop, and it looks stunning enough that it's an easy recommendation, but golly, just a little high energy never hurt anybody, not even in a film whose psychic and emotionally emptiness is flagged by the title like that.