2021, NR, 77 min. Directed by Caleb Michael Johnson. Starring Tallie Medel, Lindsay Burdge, Vincent James Pendergast, Jason Newman, Thomas Fernandes, Frank Mosely.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 4, 2021
Reminiscent of surrealist horrorshows such as Bob Balaban’s undeservedly overlooked Parents, Julia Ducournau’s Raw, and a doomy wealth of David Lynchian non-sequitor-laden gallows humor, this Austin-shot victim of SXSW 2020’s closure due to plague deserves to be seen. Sophomore feature director Johnson’s creepily banal fever dream examining the slow motion disintegration of a marriage, coupled with unsettling loss of a beloved pet, is its own brand of nightmare fuel. It’s likely to be particularly disquieting for viewers who’ve endured the death of a long-term relationship, complete with all the petty, passive-aggressive mind games and grating anxieties driven by the fear of being cast aside and left utterly, horribly alone by your partner.
Alice (the mesmerizing Medel) and her wife Bret (Burdge) are in freefall. Alice works as a low-level bank employee and Bret is a USPS employee but their day jobs' own particular hellishness is the least of their problems. Bret’s elderly dog Harvie — her actual longtime companion by two years, a fact she cruelly reminds Alice of during one of the couple’s micro-spats — is dying and the vet bills are putting a strain on their already threadbare marriage. Indeed, Bret talks to Harvie as if he understood every word (echoes of Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz’s talking devil dog) and promises him she’d “do anything” for him if only he could speak. Alice is plainly jealous of her partner’s intimacy with Harvie; in a telling detail, she’s shown tallying the number of times she and Bret have had sex recently and the number is a bad, black zero.
Gallows humor is apparent from the start. The Carnivores' core couple is actually vegetarian, which only adds to the film’s creeping weirdness as Alice is periodically and almost erotically attracted to the local grocery’s butcher’s department, where she fondles chuck roasts in a scene that could, like many of the sequences seen from Alice’s inreasingly unstable POV, be either a dream or reality. To make matters worse she’s also begun sleepwalking: so when Harvie goes missing one day Bret’s mania to find her vanished, four-legged bestie only irritates the many open wounds already in play. Why is Alice returning home from her nocturnal wanderings with mud-caked feet and why, when given the opportunity to spend some alone time with Harvie, does she attempt to play fetch with the dog in a cemetery of all places?
Between the spectacularly disturbing sound design, Medel’s perfectly raw and queasily realistic performance of an already insecure mind coming wholly unhinged, and cinematographer Adam J. Minnick’s canted camera setups and dreamy-dreary color palette, The Carnivores is a slow burning bad dream. To the credit of everyone involved in the production, Johnson’s film is uniquely sticky-strange. It clings to your psyche, a parasitic creepy-crawl of anxiety that will test the viewer’s own ability to get a good night’s sleep long after the closing credits fade to black.
Available on VOD now. Bite into our interview with writer/director Caleb Michael Johnson at austinchronicle.com/screens.