Dim echoes of David Lynch and early Roman Polanski abound throughout “The Carnivores,” a fitfully fascinating mix of teasing narrative opacity and stylized psycho-thriller atmospherics. The shot-in-Austin indie feature, originally set to premiere at the cancelled SXSW Film Festival, instead had a March 14 unveiling at a private event in the Texas capital city attended, according to a press release, by “the film’s crew, cast, friends & family, and prominent members of the Austin film community.”
Director Caleb Michael Johnson, working from a script he co-wrote with Jeff Bay Smith, walks a tricky tightrope here, and occasionally — especially during his movie’s first act — seems perilously close to toppling into absurdity. Indeed, there are moments when he inadvertently cues memories of the hilarious remark by Janeane Garofalo’s veterinarian talk show host in “The Truth About Cats and Dogs”: “You can love your dog. Just don’t love your dog.” And it doesn’t help much that Tallie Medel, one of his two lead players, actually bears a slight physical resemblance to Garofalo.
Medel plays Alice, a wide-eyed and insecure bank clerk deeply attached to her partner, Bret (Lindsay Burdge), with whom she shares a home in a quiet Austin neighborhood. Trouble is, Bret has been devoting most of her attention lately to a third resident of the house: Harvie, her beloved dog, who’s just beginning to recover from an unspecified ailment that has required a lengthy and expensive regiment of medications.
It’s not exactly a romantic triangle, but Alice feels sufficiently neglected to keep track in a notebook of how often she and Bret have been intimate in recent weeks. (Not just not often, as it turns out, but not at all.) And her not-entirely-quiet resentment kicks up a notch when Bret pointedly reminds Alice that she’s known Harvie two years longer than she’s known her.
What saves “The Carnivores” time and again from turning irredeemably silly are the portentous undercurrents that percolate beneath the deceptively bland surfaces rendered in the darkly eloquent cinematography of Johnson and Adam J. Minnick. Even before we’re informed that she and Bret are vegetarians, there is something ineffably unsettling about the way Alice casts mesmerized glances at the meat counter displays in her neighborhood grocery store. And as we watch her quietly endure nerve-gratingly inane one-sided conversations with a co-worker in the break room in her bank, we sense a vibe that is more borderline homicidal than mind-foggingly bored. (Credit must go to Vincent James Prendergast for playing said co-worker in a cluelessly garrulous fashion that provides equal measures of comic relief and apprehension elevation.)
Alice’s skittishness tends to make her sympathetic, but it’s not nearly enough to keep her that way. The beautiful thing about Medel’s performance is her ability to convey complex and contradictory emotions, so that we can feel sorry for her without ever doubting she is capable of doing something dreadful. It comes as no surprise whatsoever when Harvie disappears. What remains a mystery, for a long time, is the extent of her culpability, and just how completely our worst suspicions might be fulfilled.
Medel and Burdge develop a credible give-and-take as a longtime couple, adding a compelling dimension to the film’s underlying metaphor of love as the impulse to consume the object of your desire. In fact, “The Carnivores” might be more involving, and a great deal more satisfying, if Johnson didn’t indicate early on that we really shouldn’t trust anything we see as real.
Without giving too much of the game away, suffice it to say that Alice has a propensity for sleepwalking, and some of what we see dramatized may or may not be bad dreams. (And even when she’s wide awake: Does she really drive off and leave Harvie in a park?) In fact, entire stretches of the film feel as though they were invented sequentially during production rather than scripted ahead of time, an impression only reinforced in the closing credits by an acknowledgement that “additional dialogue” was provided by cast members. (A minor but nagging distraction: Why does Bret never question, either in the moment or afterwards, how Alice knows exactly where to stop to make a gruesome discovery during their search for Harvie?)
On the other hand, Johnson’s anything-goes attitude does allow for something resembling a happy ending — if you want to believe it, that is.