Caleb Michael Johnson’s sophomore feature amounts to little more than a clumsy attempt at intellectual horror.
We open on a shot of a dog’s wagging tongue, while cozy French lounge pop plays in the background. Then, we cut to a supermarket where a woman stands absorbed by the meat counter — her finger probes the glossy plastic sealing red juices which sluice at her touch — and back to the dog, and back to her. She’s almost salivating. This stylized metaphoric bluntness is characteristic of Caleb Michael Johnson’s sophomore feature The Carnivores, a film desperately trying to balance between relationship drama, comedy, and horror. This feat is all the more challenging given the film’s thematic proximity to Julia Ducournau’s Raw, another work in which tensions and anxieties manifest themselves as a vegetarian’s all-consuming hunger for meat. In fairness, Johnson’s film situates the dynamic in a troubled relationship rather than Ducournau’s coming-of-age narrative, but the obvious parallel makes The Carnivores’ clumsy displays appear even more uncouth next to that deft piece of genre filmmaking.
Alice (Tallie Medel) and Bret (Lindsay Burdge) are a young lesbian couple living a seemingly comfortable middle-class lifestyle in Austin, Texas, but Bret’s dog Harvey is absorbing all of her attention, leaving Alice out in the cold. To make matters worse, Harvey is slowly dying, and his mounting vet bills threaten to destabilize the household finances, while Alice’s ambivalence to the dog, newfound cravings for raw meat, and bouts of sleepwalking add a layer of unease to the proceedings. This type of horror-adjacent relationship drama is not new to Johnson, whose 2012 short Root saw a woman’s affair externalized as Cronenbergian terror. But if that simple premise was sufficient for the short, here he struggles to fill the 77-minute runtime after Alice loses Harvey on a sleepwalk and the pieces of the puzzle are set.
In some sense, it’s a bit surprising that Johnson pulls back toward horror, as he was far more successful operating in the Cassavetes-tinged mumblecore of his feature debut Joy Kevin — another film starring Medel as a woman caught in a stifling relationship. But if Joy Kevin established a withering yet somewhat affectionate dynamic, the relationship between the leads in The Carnivores is so desiccated, loveless, and antagonistic that it bristles at the bounds of believability to suggest they ever had anything in common or would continue to stick it out. Alice keeps a notebook diligently tracking each night that Bret denies her sex in favor of extended walks with Harvey, largely depriving her of affection apart from a chaste here-and-there kiss. An early moment where Alice appears to pleasure herself to an imagined conversation with Bret seems to suggest a psycho-sexual edge in the vein of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” But this idea quickly dissipates as Johnson seems to have little interest in seriously engaging the subject (despite teasing the theme by having Alice leash herself to the bed), and a later scene showing their frustrated attempts at foreplay as so stilted that it’s played for laughs.
Speaking of which: There are several awkward infusions of bad comedy littering what otherwise plays as an emotionally fraught thriller. The most insufferable “comic relief” finds Alice interacting with a nerdy coworker who rambles at her in a bargain bin impression of Office Space’s Milton. More than just unfunny, these sharp tonal shifts chip away at the limited sense of gravity and pathos that the film hinges on. This wouldn’t be such a problem if The Carnivores leaned harder into stylized horror, but Johnson is adamant in having the film be a somber character piece as well, despite its sparse character development, so the whole thing feels like a lumbering mess. After a while, you start to grow numb to the central predicament as neither Bret’s fervor for the missing dog nor Alice’s fervor for raw meat have much dramatic pull on their own, so there’s little else to latch on to. Instead, our heroines float through the miasma of Johnson’s tired atmospherics, until the sudden and wholly unearned resolution. The entire experience is doubly frustrating since Tallie Medel in particular, a highlight of Joy Kevin, has just come off a role in one of the best films of 2020 (Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen), only to find her sizeable talents squandered in this faltering attempt at heady horror.