American Carnage is harmlessly fun and occasionally intriguing in its provocations, but it’s all predicated too closely on overly familiar touchstones.
What’s the ideal framework for satire today? A bit of the shocking, a lot of the familiar. For better or for worse, this capitulation to comfort has obfuscated the workings of ideology within most contemporary media that purport to satirize, critique, or even make fun of political misdemeanors. Even in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the first quartile of self-styled “comedians” and first-time “filmmakers” armed with their iPhone cameras were already joining forces with established auteurs and A-listers alike to spectate, commentate, get their voice heard on all matters related to the lockdown: racism, domestic violence, mask mandates, heists, and even a serial killer outing (The Covid Killer, courtesy of Jeff Knite). Some of these were indeed astute commentaries on life in lockdown, others were naturally reprehensible; predictably, much of the output was just mediocre, nothing innately offensive or unabashedly hypocritical, and certainly nothing novel.
Arguably, American Carnage — from director Diego Hallivis and headlined by Jenna Ortega (of recent fame, in both the new Scream and Ti West’s X) — falls smack dab into this category of cozy mediocrity. Billed as a horror comedy in which “no one escapes the daily grind,” the film bleakly heralds its promised vision of social chaos through a dystopian future-now-past where executive orders are dished out at will and law enforcement is eagerly present to consummate them. (To be clear, this is set in the U.S., but it’s not an exclusively stars-and-stripes phenomenon.) The order in Hallivis’ sights pertains to immigration, or more accurately, deporting the illegal persons back South; beginning first with a newscaster compilation on the evils of Ugly Racist America, and then a glimpse in medias res into the boring everyday life of fast food-working, Latino adolescent JP (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and his higher-performing, Ivy League-bound sister Lily (Yumarie Morales), American Carnage establishes its somewhat (and knowingly) outlandish tone less than fifteen minutes in, when a farewell party the duo are at is violently gatecrashed by immigration officers, and its attendees herded into detention facilities, awaiting possible release, deportation, or something far worse.
Without unspooling too much of the titular carnage here, it can be said that American Carnage’s central premise is itself haphazardly strewn around populist deliverables, weakly attempting a synthesis of corporate greed with a system that loops it, ouroboros style, into virulent bigotry and ethnocentrism. Five immigrant youths, JP among them, are transported from detention to dementia town, entrusted with elderly care in a bid to earn the octogenarians’ trust and family titles (so as to legally become citizens and regain access into the country). The nursing home, with some of its bed-ridden inhabitants, run amok, nests dark, conspiratorial secrets meant to tie back into the nation’s derelict, immoral state of governance. While proving harmlessly fun and occasionally intriguing, the comic yet sinister overtones of American Carnage are predicated a bit too closely on Get Out, endeavoring to articulate the latter’s uncanny visuals and grotesque themes but doing so in not particularly memorable ways. Although the familiar is essential for the shocking to make its presence felt, Hallivis dwells too sluggishly within the confines of the former’s dollar-store slogans. Jan 6 Trumpism? Supreme Court shenanigans? In light of Roe v. Wade’s overturning, American Carnage marks the moment with nary a whimper.