Over the years, too many LGBTQ+ films have relied on tired tropes to tell our stories. Coming out angst, U-haul lesbians, and drugged out circuit queens have seemingly been done to death. Imagine my surprise while watching writer/director Caleb Johnson’s The Carnivores, which on the surface trots out the old chestnut of Lesbian Bed Death, yet manages to find an imaginative, and highly cinematic way of telling its tale.
Alice (Tallie Medel), a bank teller, and Bret (Lindsay Burdge), a postal worker, have been together long enough to never have sex anymore. We know this because Alice keeps scrupulous records. Bret seems more dedicated to her dying dog Harvie than to Alice. Johnson perfectly establishes the fracture in their relationship right away as we catch them searching their neighborhood for their missing pup. Bret appears laser-focused and ferocious, whereas Alice seems adrift.
Alice also seems half-hearted about their vegan lifestyle as she finds herself hypnotized in the meat section at their local Austin supermarket. As we dive deeper into Alice’s crumbling mindset, it’s easy to see her obsession as a metaphor for the carnality she craves in her relationship. Although the two clearly love each other, Alice, in no uncertain terms, wants the heat back. Trying everything she can to make that happen, Alice either imagines or resorts to a more diabolical option. It’s hard to tell since Johnson puts us inside her head, and our unreliable narrator refuses to make that an easy place to stay.
Johnson who shot the film with his cinematographer Adam J. Minnick, has a wonderfully fluid style, hypnotizing the audience while simultaneously throwing us off track. Using shallow focus, intense closeups, and fractured editing techniques, Johnson eschews any type of camp sensibility in favor of an odd mixture of surrealism and naturalism. Although extremely humorous at times, The Carnivores explores mental illness in a very serious way. Still, it’s impossible not to laugh during the multiple break room scenes Alice has with her co-worker Roland (Vincent James Prendergast), who doles out ridiculous advice on any subject, especially ones he knows nothing about.
Burdge and Medel, who contributed dialogue to the script along with co-writer Jeff Bay Smith, also excel, each with their own unique approaches to their roles. Both never shy away from appearing unsympathetic, yet they also have found nuanced ways to convey their closeness and also how they can hurt each other. One moment, in which Bret informs Alice that she’s known her dog a good two years before she knew her, proves a chilling way to get under someone’s skin.
Although difficult to categorize, the film mixes thriller elements with psychodrama, and a bit of David Lynch-ian oddness. It may seem a little too slender, especially with its 74 minute running time, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The filmmaker and his actors have no fear of getting bloody and dirty, literally. It’s a film filled with angry, damaged people who ache for something better. If you’ve ever been in a relationship filled with overwhelming problems, yet had a deep desire to make things work, the journey Alice and Bret take in The Carnivores will sate your hunger.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The Carnivores is currently playing as part of the 2020 Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival and can be accessed along with a filmmaker Q&A until August 24th via OutfestLA2020.com .