Utilizing three distinct styles of animation, Chris Sullivan’s Consuming Spirits interweaves the lives of three different characters in a fictional Rust Belt town during the mid-20th century. The animated feature shifts between cutout collage, stop motion, and pencil-drawn lines as seamlessly and without warning as the film narrative itself does as it cuts across temporal and subjective realities. Although the film is divided into distinct parts, the expressionist techniques defy the notion of time and structure, a theme supported by the three central characters themselves. Earl Gray (Robert Levy), Gentian Violet (Nancy Andrews), and Victor Blue (Chris Sullivan) take their names from different colors, but share the same colorless existence in the small berg of Magusson.
Earl hosts a gardening tips radio show that he turns into a platform to spin bizarre botanical metaphors or to ruminate with philosophical melancholy about the past. Gentian and Victor both work for the local newspaper; though their lives are set before the eventual decline of the small-town publication, their downbeat, alcohol-soaked states and impotent pseudo-relationship prefigure their paper’s inevitable fate (with the help of the subversive headlines that fly through the film’s frames).
The explanation for the characters’ bleak lives resides in their personal histories — ghosts of the past take both literal and figurative forms throughout the film. In their most obvious visual incarnation, spirits wisp out of bottles, coffee cups, and smokestacks. More metaphorically, there’s Gentian’s school bus, an expressionist representation of her extended childhood. Victor has alcoholism that he inherited from his father, a trailer-dwelling drunk who left only his pick-up truck to his son (though not the ownership deed itself). Meanwhile, Earl’s seemingly insane ramblings about a deer-man turn out to have an actual basis in his past sins. The natural history museum in the town also serves as another means to preserve the past in living memory, although its exhibitions obscure the truth more than educate the future generations of Magusson’s denizens.
Consuming Spirits transposes the personal demons of its protagonists to the town itself through the ironically-named Holy Angels Sanatorium. The building’s gothic exterior is an anachronistic contrast, looking even older than the mid-20th century American town it’s set in. While Gentian’s feckless investigative reporting into possible corruption at Holy Angels comes off as a parody, it also belies the fact that the nun-run mental institution does, in fact, contain the missing pieces to the mystery at the heart of the film. As Consuming Spirits unfolds, the questions surrounding the death of Victor’s father, the identity of a nun Gentian runs over with her school bus, and the disappearance of Victor’s sister all implicate the mental institution. By the film’s conclusion, it becomes clear that the secret behind the walls is not some vast conspiracy, but instead the way in which people sweep away their social unrest to forget about the ugly truths of their community.