Though it feels like there was room to push the envelope a little more, this psychodrama love story goes in some pretty bold directions.
The Carnivores is a movie about love on the rocks. There’s Brett (Lindsay Burdge) and her dog Harvie. Brett loves Harvie, even more than she seems to love her girlfriend Alice (Tallie Medel), who has to fight for Brett’s attention. The problem is that Harvie has been sick, is only getting worse, and the two are not only facing financial straits to keep him alive but his current teetering on the edge of going to puppy heaven has Brett even more obsessed with Harvie than ever before.
This is taking a difficult psychological toll on Alice. She keeps a diary of how often she and Brett have sex (which appears to be literally never), and also of her sleeping habits. As of late, Alice has been having a concerning sleepwalking problem, often waking up by herself in random locations around the couple’s home city of Austin, and sometimes even waking up to find that unconsciously has taken Harvie for a walk. She also has acquired an uncomfortable fixation on raw meat, despite being vegan. Alice’s mental breakdown sends the couple on an offbeat journey back to discovering one another, along with all the macabre steps it takes to get there.
In this sense, The Carnivores is largely a love story told through the lens of the avant-garde and weirdo psychodrama. Following Alice through the film as she tries to win back Brett’s affection, no matter what it takes, more often than not feels like a fuzzy fever dream where it becomes impossible to discern fiction from reality. You can feel her reaching a breaking point as she continues to trudge to the meat section of the supermarket just to stare at the boundless supply of ground beef. What it means to her is largely up to the viewer. Director Caleb Michael Johnson isn’t interested in providing easy narrative answers but guides the viewer to decide for themselves what exactly these unusual happenings mean for Brett and Alice.
Medel and Burdge are an excellent leading pair who build tense chemistry with each other, exhibiting a clear unconditional love for each other but also some undeniable historic relational trouble. A section of the film where Brett leaves Alice for an entire day with no indication of where she has gone gives Medel, in particular, a lot of room to shine as Alice’s desperation becomes more evident than ever. Vincent James Prendergast also comes through in a notably funny role as Alice’s insufferable coworker who completes the circle of making her existence a complete living nightmare.
Though The Carnivores leans into stylings of the dark and experimental, it always feels like its teetering on the edge of a cinematic freak-out that’s never able to let loose. As such, some of the relational drama that feels like it should be coming through in a more audacious manifestation of mental dread instead feels frustratingly at arm’s length, as the film opts for a more slow-burn build and similarly subtle conclusion.
However, the film is held afloat by a fiercely independent and unorthodox spirit that tells a story full of dark humor and visual ironies; a scene where Brett and Alice kiss each other through the glass of the shower door is a simple but striking visual representation of the barrier that’s been between them for a long time. It’s a bold combination of genres that sits somewhere right between a psychological thriller and a grounded relationship drama, and an affecting treatise on how far we’ll go when we need to feel needed.
This review was filed from SXSW 2020. Check out all of our remote coverage from the festival.
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