Directed by Caleb Michael Johnson, The Carnivores cooly begins with a blur of American suburbs and pickups ceding to American supermarkets and plastic shrink-wrapped meats. A luscious dream pop crooner purrs in French over these images, while the markedly-unwell Alice (Tallie Medel) wobbles in the aisle as she stares at the produce. The filmmaker’s sophomore feature wraps sexual anxiety, gender discomfort and self-loathing impulses around a not-so-subtle mystery. At 77 minutes, it’s Johnson’s longest film to date.
In The Carnivores, Alice is in evident duress. She keeps track of her sleep and sex life — a miserable row of Xs show that she ain’t getting any. That’s because her partner, Bret (Lindsay Burdge), is fretting about their dog. Johnson introduces her in full post worker outfit, frantically searching the neighborhood for the missing canine. Bret insists they let Harvey “be a dog,” which leads to him frequently getting lost. Soon, it’s revealed that Harvey the hound is sick, and that expensive medication is too much to handle for this young couple.
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The focal couple’s attempts to live a simple suburban lifestyle, that’s hip and performatively liberal, are clearly anathema to Alice, who scowls at the “Vegetarians Taste Better” sticker on their beat-up car. Soon after, Johnson uses dissolve-heavy editing to depict sexual fantasies that may or may not be real — human bodies, pornographically-shot food. Alice begins to have trouble every day as she periodically sleepwalks, waking with marks, soil and eventually worse traces on her.
The Carnivores hovers between psychological realism and a full-blown genre blowout. The stylistic tension evokes Alice and Bret’s simmering, almost violent co-dependency. Johnson uses simple techniques to focus the film on the couple. With static camerawork at low, strange angles, Harvey isn’t sentimentalized or even characterized. Johnson doesn’t rely on perspective shots of the canine lifting an ear or craning its neck, or any of the other tricks that often make an audience fall for a dog at the movies. This humanist, or human-focused, approach only works to sterilize The Carnivores’ overall mood. Good strategies for showing character dynamics — like cutting between two isolating wing-mirrors during the search for Harvey in a car — focus the viewer on the leads’ expressions, all but blocking out the landscape and certainly stopping the audience from reading the characters’ body language to each other.
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In The Carnivores’ best moment, Alice’s attempt to cast aside Harvey by leaving the dog at a cemetery is only revealed to have been aborted when a flash-forward reveals the sound of Bret, offscreen, petting the dog. These methods of stripping down the filmmaking to its bare necessities creates a film that feels more expansive than the sum of its parts.
The pleasurable moments of filmmaking flourish briefly separate The Carnivores from similar cult contemporaries Raw (2016) and Swallow (2019), but Johnson fails to build on his premise. Alice and Bret’s tepid, sex-free relationship is given a grace-note image of the pair passionately kissing through the glass of a shower. Bret is naked, washing and sterile, while Alice soaks up her own filth. The moment recalls Sam Byers’ 2021 novel Come Join Our Disease, in which a once-homeless woman, aghast at the desolate, corporate-aspiring antiseptic nature of the modern world, chooses to live in her own, increasingly nightmarish filth and squalor. The Carnivores doesn’t achieve (nor does it attempt) to reach the same heights of Buñuelian fantasy as Byers’ comic novel, but the works do share a man’s effort to embody a lesbian point of view that relies on shallow and broad strokes.
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The Carnivores’ anonymous suburban town setting makes one wonder if all of the U.S. is similar, and Medel‘s half-sarcastic line delivery doesn’t help matters. In Dan Sallitt’s 2019 film Fourteen, the actress gives a wonderful, empathetic performance as a submissive character in a co-dependent relationship. But in Johnson’s film, her psychosis veers between over-intensity and arch self-awareness. The Carnivores doesn’t modulate around its actors, and so it comes across as underwritten. At work, both female leads encounter fast talking, uncaring men who lord over their boring low-paid jobs. Johnson doesn’t create a specific sense of place in The Carnivores, nor does he develop the characters into anything more than cyphers for American angst that a million Sundance films have delivered before.
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.