Caleb Michael Johnson’s first feature juggles iconography, domestic drama, and surrealism to modest success.
The Carnivores is almost funny. It’s almost funny in the way a dull gag, or a spout of awkwardness, or some cruel cosmic joke is. The thing is that The Carnivores isn’t a comedy. It’s too emotionally distant as well as, in a lesser impact, visually so. When the two main characters aren’t together and talk with others, it can feel as if someone is bound to wrap up the interaction in a way that’s more banal than anything else. “Oh, that’s funny,” one would expect them to say, largely out of obligation. They never do.
That’s not to say the movie takes place in some sort of alternate reality. It’s stylized, but it’s not hyper-stylized. The surrealism introduces itself halfway through and picks up from there, but given how basic the story is, it rarely butts heads with the conflict at hand. And it makes sense in its own way: Bret (Lindsay Burdge) and Alice (Tallie Medel) are a couple whose marriage is dwindling. Their dog, Harvie, is sick, the veterinarian bills doing a number on their funds. Bret is concerned about it. Alice keeps a journal logging her own sleep cycle in one column and their sex life in another. Their relationship might as well run on a points-based system, and for much of Caleb Michael Johnson’s debut, it does.
The distance at hand here isn’t necessarily between Bret and Alice. That’s a large part of it, but the script, which Johnson and Jeff Bay Smith wrote, focuses more on how the couple’s life together manifests itself. It’s logged and paid for in ways that are mutually exclusive. Granted, the ways The Carnivores uses these tools to lay in the marital strife are more surface-level than they ought to be. They stop at playing more like pieces to a MacGuffin, largely due to how underwritten half of the central couple is.
Nothing here is particularly deep or likely to leave a lasting impact. … That said, it takes a steady hand to keep this sort of material feeling as modest as it does here.
While Bret and Alice’s life together isn’t much more than a swatch of American iconography, that works to convey how shallow their relationship is. Bret, though, is a small collection of new-age lifestyle choices and obvious contradictions, not many of which the movie spends enough time exploring. With that, The Carnivores feels more incomplete than sparse for the first half-hour. It’s afterward that it pivots toward Alice, diving headfirst into the approach necessary to explore its themes. To say it comes together would be inaccurate. It does, however, begin to feel much more intentional.
For one, Medel’s performance makes more of an impact, largely because she gets more to do than Burdge. She’s rocky in her delivery but tethered to reality and, alongside how the script dissolves into a series of increasingly surreal vignettes, helps give the preceding iconography purpose as much as the movie itself does. Red meat, a dog leash by the bed, the defiling of a lawn—it becomes primal, sexual, borderline Freudian. Shots begin to last a little longer, but they don’t necessarily feel long. The visual style, as flat as it is, also veers closer to the uncanny.
Nothing here is particularly deep or likely to leave a lasting impact. (Suffice it to say that the very ending feels untrue to what comes before.) That said, it takes a steady hand to keep this sort of material feeling as modest as it does here. Johnson isn’t one for cheap tricks. If anything, there’s an inherent sense of humor here. Harvie may begin as an admittedly blunt symbol of domestic life, but as for the way his basic presence makes Bret and Alice’s marriage waver like he’s the lynchpin of a love triangle? That, frankly, is pretty funny.
The Carnivores is now in select theaters and on VOD.