Lindsay Burdge and Tallie Medel in "The Carnivores"

SXSW 2020 Review: Relationship Issues Are Fully Fleshed Out in Caleb Michael Johnson’s Biting “The Carnivores”

Alice (Tallie Medel) can’t sleep and you can’t be quite sure why at the start of “The Carnivores.” It could be the ever-dwindling $2800 she has to her name, the recent disappearance of Harvie, the dog she shares with her girlfriend Bret (Lindsay Burdge), or it could be a legit case of narcolepsy, leading her to ask a veterinarian just before Harvie is gone for good – even before he goes missing, he is unwell – whether there is any prescription for treating sleep loss. That’s hardly the only time Alice seeks answers in the wrong place in Caleb Michael Johnson’s strangely affecting and genuinely unsettling relationship drama, which puts audiences on the same fractured footing as its lead until she can find stable ground.

While Alice insists she doesn’t need to set an alarm to make the four o’clock appointment to the vet, it speaks volumes that Bret even needs to ask, and her admonition proves to be a wake-up call for those off-screen when it’s unclear what’s a dream and what’s reality for the customer service rep by day who trains to be a vegan chef by night, surely restless whether or not sleep comes into the equation. The film itself flutters like her heavy eyelids, giving glimpses into how Alice can be physically present, but not there at all – her mind and body rarely on the same page, which takes an additional toll on her connection with Bret, wanting to give all of herself over to her partner, only to see Bret have less attention for her as she invests herself fully into Harvie’s recovery, first when he’s sick and then when he’s lost.

For as many darkly funny elements as there are in “The Carnivores,” the irony that Alice and Bret show how compatible they are by becoming enmeshed in their personal obsessions as intensely as one another — energy that could be better put to use in confronting what emotional obstacles they may have to overcome as a couple — becomes the most amusing and besides the typically go-for-broke performances from Medel and Burdge, Johnson and “Chained for Life” cinematographer Adam J. Minnick consistently find inventive ways to convey the distance that can exist between the lovers even when physically they share the same frame, shrewdly making use of anything within their reach that could be used as a divider just like the characters.

Watching Medel’s somnambulant Alice try to humor her annoyingly chatty co-worker Roland (a scene-stealing Vincent James Prendergast) by summoning every ounce of strength she has to keep her eyes open is worth the price of admission alone, but Johnson pulls off the nifty feat of escalating the weirdness between Alice and Bret to make the dynamic of their relationship more familiar, showing the two becoming unrecognizable to each other and even themselves with more and more outrageous behavior that brings their alienation to the surface. Although Alice may have long excluded red meat from her diet, there’s plenty of it to chew on in “The Carnivores” and perhaps it doesn’t all go down easy, but it satisfies at the end.

“The Carnivores” does not yet have U.S. distribution.