To say that Consuming Sprits—a meticulously constructed animated feature set in small-town Appalachia written, directed, edited, and produced by the talented Chris Sullivan—is depressing is not a value judgment so much as a fact. Over the course of its 129 minutes, this willfully disturbing, almost exultant catalogue of alcohol’s ills sketches out the intricate gradations of addiction, melancholia, and humiliation from which its three main characters—skillfully rendered in pencil drawing, cutout animation, collage, and stop-motion animation—suffer.
Earl Gray, lonely and alone at age 67, is a major tippler and former radio personality who writes a macabre gardening advice column for the local paper. Gentian Violet, 42, also a newspaper employee, lives with her Alzheimer’s-stricken, homebound mother who threatens suicide and spews horrifying patter at her daughter’s boyfriend, Victor Blue (“Gentian keeps her ‘little muffin’ clean with a special vinegar wash!”). Although he is mostly a good sport, Victor’s ruinous boozing makes him sad and mean. When Earl, Gentian, and Victor’s unstinting drinking leads to a terrible car accident involving all of them, we learn that there is more to these characters’ relationships than meets the eye.
Inspired in part by traumatic events from Sullivan’s own life, the world depicted in Consuming Spirits has the consistency and narrative logic of a just barely tolerable nightmare, complete with a man clothed in a decaying stag’s carcass and wrinkle-faced nuns with guns. Drawn over the course of 15 years, and shot in 16mm—which gives the film a lived-in look—the movie steers clear of established gothic clichés, instead cultivating an aesthetic that might be called naïf Appalachian grotesque. Featuring relatively varied camerawork for an animated film, including attention to depth of field, Consuming Spirits creates a proprietary palette of psychic decimation’s manifold shades.
Its soundtrack composed of Irish drinking songs is hauntingly beautiful in a way that the film’s visuals are decidedly not. Chris Sullivan himself performs the vocals, as well as playing the piano, harp, guitar, accordion, and synthesizer.
Subtitled “a parable in five chapters,” the allegorical dialogue in Consuming Spirits often rears on itself—the movie’s as much an indictment of art as a celebration of it. In the world Sullivan has created, beauty is a tenuous high, a casualty of not having sobered up yet. For its booze-addled characters, life itself has become toxic, and yet living is their only true recourse.