Bret (Lindsay Burdge) and Alice (Tallie Medel) are living through a low-key sort of domestic hell: they’re an ordinary couple whose relationship is on the skids, to the point where ordinary daily annoyances threaten to strain them to the breaking point. Anyone who’s been married, or in a long-term relationship, will recognize the petty digs and catty unpleasantness that only a couple of long acquaintance can dish out to each other.
Alice keeps a sleep journal that includes a notation of whether she and Bret made love the previous night, and it’s clear that they haven’t for some time now. Bret is the kind of annoying dog owner who thinks her canine baby Harvie can do no wrong, and Alice resents the fact that Bret shows more affection to Harvie than to her. It doesn’t help that the now elderly Harvie has a lot of medical problems that require expensive treatments that are straining the household budget (Alice is a low-level bank employee, while Bret works for the postal service, so they don’t have a ton of money). About a third of the way in, Harvie disappears, and Bret is frantic while Alice feels guilty, but she’s not sure why. Did Alice do something to Harvie? Even she’s not sure, which seems a bit odd since Alice has not previously shown signs of mental instability, but Bret certainly has her suspicions.
Don’t be fooled by the mundane setup: there’s more to Caleb Michael Johnson’s The Carnivores than a simple domestic drama. There are signs from the start that there’s something more going on, beginning with backdrops of bright saturated yellows and greens that contrast with the characters’ dulled affects. Scenes are frequently shot from odd angles or points of view, giving the film a slightly upsetting air while suggesting that the main characters are concealing things from each other. This uneasy feeling is enhanced by scenes that suggest menace while actually being quite innocent: someone chops a deep-red substance that turns out to be beets, dirt is scooped into a kitchen pot, only to be used for potting soil. And what does all this have to do with Alice’s growing obsession with meat?
The Carnivores is Alice’s film, and Medel does a fine job making a passive character hold your interest: her cringeworthy lunch break scenes with an obliviously garrulous co-worker (Vincent James Prendergast) alone are worth the price of a ticket. Johnson’s script, which he co-wrote with Jeff Bay Smith, is deliberately ambiguous and full of sly touches of humor, while the cinematography by Johnson and Adam J. Minnick and the soundtrack by Curtis Heath frequently evoke horror tropes, although sometimes in the service of misdirection. The result is a film that keeps you off balance while holding your interest to the end. | Sarah Boslaugh
QFEST runs April 16-25, with programming only available in Missouri and Illinois. Tickets to single films are $14 for general admission and $12 for Cinema St. Louis members and students. Once you begin watching, a film remains available for 48 hours, and several passes are also available. Further information is available from the QFest web site.