“This is all relevant,” one of the characters in Consuming Spirits tells a pair of impatient policemen who are waiting to hear his confession in a kidnapping and torture case. “Just be patient with me here… Though I ramble, all that I say is vital.” He’s telling the truth, but he’s speaking on behalf of the movie, as well. Chris Sullivan’s stop-motion animated feature, 15 years in the making, wanders considerably in establishing its world. For more than 90 minutes of its runtime, it lays down scenes and images as if setting out a Tarot reading: The connections and the meaning aren’t immediately apparent, and viewers are given plenty of time to find their own patterns and invent their own associations. Then, in its final half-hour, it pulls all the threads together, and a breathtaking bigger picture finally comes into focus.
The narrative focuses on three awkward, lonely people in a small Appalachian town: bus driver and newspaper paste-up artist Gentian Violet; her co-worker, bandmate, and low-key romantic interest Victor Blue; and radio talk-show host Earl Gray. When Gentian runs over a nun in the woods outside of town, then drags her body into the woods and covers it with branches, it seems more like a nightmare than an actual event, but Gentian’s bruised face persists, keeping the crime in focus as the story moves further and further from it without comment. Meanwhile, the film fills in some of the blanks of the principals’ lonely lives, separately and in relation to each other, but it takes its time in getting back to the nun and the events Gentian’s actions set in motion.
Sullivan, a teacher at Chicago’s School Of The Art Institute, animated the film himself over the course of more than a decade with the help of student hires, and it has a crude, handmade look that often approaches outsider art. The characters, made from paper cutouts, move fluidly, but they’re deliberately grotesque. (Sullivan explained why in an A.V. Club interview after the film debuted at Tribeca in April 2012.) Outdoor scenes are handled with toys roughly navigating 3-D landscapes; scenes from the past appear in simple, melancholy-tinged black-and-white cel animation. The film covers so many visual styles, it sometimes feels like a scrapbook, or an extra-long episode of MTV’s Liquid Television, assembling the work of several animators with winking weird humor.
But watching Consuming Spirits is like surrendering to hypnosis, or to a particularly haunting dream. The naturalistic dialogue and droning roots-music soundtrack (which Sullivan also largely composed and performed) blend together into one sleepy piece, while surreal imagery—particularly stylized objects floating across the screen, related to the characters’ words, but unnoticed and unremarked upon—helps break reality down. It’s easy to get impatient waiting for all this shapeless strangeness to explain itself, particularly as Earl drones on in Garrison Keillor mode, right down to the absurdist radio ads for unlikely products. But his apocalyptic, creepy version of a gardening show provides a series of metaphors for how he and the others have lived their lives, needy and desperate and making horrible choices in their searches for love and a sense of belonging. And the whole movie follows suit, presenting seemingly disconnected images that turn out to have deep and painful significance in an elaborately woven, powerful story. Like the punny title, which refers both to drinking alcohol and to the secret history that controls and constrains each of the characters, Consuming Spirits has hidden depths.