By Alex McPherson
Director Caleb Michael Johnson’s new film, “The Carnivores,” is a lurid and disturbing psychological thriller that actually prompted nausea at one point, which is no small feat.
This bizarre story follows Alice (Tallie Medel) and Bret (Lindsay Burdge), an amiable yet stressed couple contending with several unaddressed issues. They each work dead-end jobs and can hardly afford to pay vet expenses for their dog, Harvie, who suffers from a terminal illness.
Alice is particularly jealous of Harvie, who receives more attention from Bret than she does. Hungry for intimacy and sleepwalking on a regular basis, Alice barely maintains her sanity. She develops a newfound fascination with meat, having been a vegan previously. When Harvie disappears, Bret becomes increasingly paranoid, and their relationship encounters a veritable smorgasbord of challenges. What follows is a deadpan, sometimes shocking film about the all-consuming pull of passion and the lengths that some will go to satiate it.
With hints of David Lynch and the off-kilter humor of Lorgos Lanthimos sprinkled throughout, “The Carnivores” definitely won’t be for all tastes. Like it or not, Johnson’s vision is undeniably striking — providing richly conceived visuals, devoted performances, and a genre mashup that’s difficult to look away from, even if you want to.
Indeed, “The Carnivores” is a refreshingly unpredictable experience, with slow-burn pacing and a tone that swerves noticeably from one moment to the next. I’m kept in nervous discomfort, never quite sure how to feel about the craziness unfurling before my eyes.
Alice is a perfect vessel for the film’s absurdist leanings. Although “The Carnivores” begins with her already in a state of mental anguish, Johnson’s film does an exceptional job at establishing her malaise with her day-to-day life. Despite her character’s potential for violence, Medel’s performance and the script’s blackly comic dialogue generate empathy and occasional amusement from her situation.
“The Carnivores” excels at a particular kind of droll comedy that befits this twisted tale perfectly, creating an uneasy atmosphere that simultaneously prompts laughter and grimaces. It’s a tricky balancing act, and Johnson more or less pulls it off effectively, especially in scenes involving Alice’s chatterbox boss and her obsessive preoccupation with slabs of meat.
Bret’s character doesn’t receive nearly as much development, but Burdge still gives her a raw edge beneath her compassionate personality. Watching her take matters into her own hands, as Alice’s life seemingly slips away from her, is upsetting but grimly compelling — not always making much sense, but building towards a suitably ravenous climax.
Of course, much of the film’s strengths lie in its cinematography and score, which constantly keep viewers on edge as to whether or not scenes are taking place in reality, or merely within Alice’s mind. Sensual, vivid imagery of her yearnings and obsessions — including a particularly memorable shot of Alice and Bret making out from either side of a shower door — have a mesmerizing quality that, while sometimes too overt for their own good, are admirable in their confidence.
Unfortunately, however, this tonal mishmash ultimately lessens the film’s emotional impact. “The Carnivores” held my interest throughout, but there are some plot beats that don’t ring as poignantly as they could have, especially near an ending that feels oddly cut and dry.
The premise is also inherently difficult to buy into, and I couldn’t become much involved in the proceedings due to its blunt, in-your-face imagery, especially in the latter half. Perhaps I will grow to appreciate “The Carnivores” more upon repeat viewings, but I couldn’t help but feel slightly distanced from the characters and the peculiar journey we’re taken on.
An acquired taste, “The Carnivores” bites off slightly more than it can chew, but remains satisfyingly well done nevertheless.
“The Carnivores” is a 2020 comedy-drama-thriller directed by Caleb Michael Johnson and part of the 2021 Cinema St Louis Q Fest April 16-25. Starring Tallie Medel and Lindsay Burdge, it is not rated and runs 1 hour, 17 minutes. Alex’s Rating: B.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.