“Consuming Spirits” puts a hook in you and doesn’t let you off. A hook the size of a crowbar. Chris Sullivan’s epically weird feature is an amalgam of radio drama, multimedia animation (drawn, cut-paper, toys in stop-motion) and experimental indie filmmaking. A morosely funny examination of pain and loneliness, it’s like a fairy tale written by a mistreated child to scare adults.
The story (subtitled “A Parable in 5 Chapters”) is a shaggy-dog enigma. It follows three characters — Victor Blue, Earl Gray and Gentian “Jenny” Violet — whose color-coded names offer a hint about their chilly, angst-ridden lives in the mythical Rust Belt town of Magnusson.
Earl (voiced by Robert Levy) hosts a radio call-in show for gardeners, but his advice regularly veers from matters of pruning and fertilizer to primly worded, borderline insane digressions. Imagine Garrison Keillor rumbling a David Lynch stream-of-consciousness monologue and you’re in the neighborhood. Sad sack Victor (writer/director Chris Sullivan) is a layout drone at the small-town Daily Suggester newspaper, where his surreally unsuitable choices of captions and photos give mundane stories gruesome implications. Jenny (Nancy Andrews), a designer and second-string reporter at the same paper, is Victor’s love interest and the caretaker of her elderly, batty mother, whose sexually inappropriate babble makes for uncomfortable dinner dates.
Jenny’s moonlighting job as a school bus driver sets the story in motion. She nods off at the wheel, running over a nun who has escaped from Holy Angels Sanitarium. She conceals the body in the woods, creating interlocking mysteries. What are the walls of the nunnery/asylum (“Come up to Holy Angels and see if monastic life is your next career move”) keeping out, or in? Whose taxidermied corpse has been added to the tiny local history museum as an Indian relic? What family secrets bind our three protagonists?
There’s a meticulous, almost obsessive attention to detail here. Earl’s radio show is sponsored by a sausagemaker known as Heimlich’s Extruded Intestinal Products and Manure Hut. Tossed-off gags reference cult animators the Brothers Quay and Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” The character design revels in withered flesh, wrinkles and warts.
The dialogue is almost poetic in its dejection. “I know I’m pretty ugly,” Victor tells Jenny after their duo sings dirgelike Irish folk tunes at the local pub. “And you know what, Jenny?” he adds in a we’re-made-for-each-other verbal bouquet. “You’re pretty ugly, too.” The overall effect is blue-collar Edward Gorey. Sullivan has created a whole little personal world, somber yet amusing, claustrophobic yet nostalgic, enchantingly discomfiting.