[Panic Fest Review] 'The Carnivores' is a Painful Experience that Examines Longing through Resentment
Every once in a while, you come across a film that is so tonally unusual it borders on indescribable...
...For better or worse, writer-director Caleb Michael Johnson’s The Carnivores, written with Jeff Bay Smith and making its regional premiere at this year’s Panic Fest, lands firmly in this territory. Whether this vague sense of unreality is intentional or not, one thing is certain: to watch The Carnivores is to feel the deep sinking dread and last helpless gasps of a relationship on the verge of implosion.
We get the sense almost immediately that Bret (Lindsay Burdge) and Alice (Tallie Medel) have been together for quite some time. There is a lived-in feel to their dynamic and a clear sense of longing for a version of the relationship that has perhaps long since passed. Alice is hungry. Hungry for passion and sex and, we gather, meat. Bret, meanwhile, is settled into the comfort of familiarity and routine. With her beloved pooch Harvie by her side and Alice nearly always within arm’s reach, the only thing she hungers for is intimacy of a different stripe. When Harvie falls ill and develops an anxiety-inducing habit of running away from home at night, the tensions in Bret and Alice’s relationship are cast in stark relief. When they find an ear in a pool of blood outside the supermarket while looking for him one night, everything begins to erode.
Carnivores is an offbeat entry, but it is remarkably good at evoking a mood. For most of the 77-minute runtime we are distinctly, unshakably uncomfortable. A bit in the sense of it feels as though something foreboding is coming, but mostly in the vein of watching an awkward encounter between two people at a dinner party who seem both on the verge of a fight and almost completely incapable of communicating with one another effectively. I suppose that’s what you get when you spend most of a film watching someone become vehemently jealous of their partner’s pet. I felt both that I could not look away and that I wasn’t quite sure what it is I was looking at.
For all its oddities it is a well-made film. Cinematographically Carnivores is undoubtedly engaging. From its opening close up shot of Harvie walking at night to its erotic and violent visual relationship with meat, we’re certainly meant to feel disoriented to some degree, and it works. Given that we spend most of the film more closely tied to Alice’s perspective—and her subsequent rapid mental deterioration when it comes to distinguishing reality from fantasy thanks to a string of sleepless nights—the predominant tone is a cocktail of restlessness, resentment, and longing. Similarly, Medel and Burdge’s performances and chemistry is believable. The inherent tension of a crumbling relationship with someone you don’t want to lose is evident even among the strangeness of the narrative and does quite a bit of heavy lifting in making Carnivores an engaging experience, such as it is.
Nevertheless, the decision to pin a plot on the idea of a dog’s death and the insinuation of abuse—the one thing almost all of us are inherently squeamish of—is an unusual choice to say the least. It dips the whole film into an oily, uncleanable darkness even in its efforts at levity. The intensity of each of their responses to Harvie’s latest disappearance speaks to the things they hunger for the deepest: Bret goes on a rampage against an apparently homeless man who had been walking his dog one night and disappears for days, and Alice ties Harvie’s leash around her ankle and wanders off to stare forlornly at the meat section of the local grocery store. Both articulate a desire for the expression of carnal emotions in distinctly different ways that give us windows into each of their mental states.
I will admit, while I can’t quite pin down exactly how I feel about this one, the last few minutes did make me tear up a bit almost without my knowing. Both women are palpably filled with such longing for a connection they feel slipping away from them, whether that be with each other or between a dog and its person. As most left-of-center films are, Carnivores may not work for everyone, but it may be worth your time all the same, provided you can stomach 77 full minutes of discomfort.
By Katelyn Nelson