[This is a repost of Perri’s review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; Carnage Park begins its limited theater engagement today. It is also available on VOD nationwide beginning today]
Apparently there’s no stopping director Mickey Keating. Pod debuted at SXSW in March 2015, then came Darling in the fall and now he’s already at Sundance with another one called Carnage Park. One might think the insanely quick turnarounds could affect the quality of the films, but Keating’s work continues to improve with Carnage Park suggesting that he’s more than ready to tackle bigger and lengthier shoots – if he chooses.
The movie takes place in California in 1978 and stars Ashley Bell as a young woman named Vivian Fontaine. She heads to the bank hoping to secure a loan to save her family’s farm, but her negotiations are interrupted by a robbery. The crooks take her as a hostage, but they don’t get too far and wind up in the worst place imaginable – an enormous, desolate property that belongs to a psychopathic former army sniper with idle hands and, as he warns at the beginning of the film, idol hands are “the devil’s playground.”
The movie kicks off with a title card dubbing the events of the film “the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime.” Pair that with the isolated setting, extreme violence and eerie score, and you get a bit of a Texas Chain Saw vibe, a quality that carries over to the movie’s big bad in a way that makes him as unhinged, unpredictable and deadly as Leatherface.
It’s mind-blowing that Pat Healy hasn’t become a household name yet. He’s already proven he’s got far more range than most thanks to films like Cheap Thrills, Compliance and The Innkeepers, just to name a few. Carnage Park marks yet another achievement for Healy as he turns Wyatt Moss into an absolute nightmare. There isn’t a single redeeming quality about Wyatt. At the start of the film he discusses his rage regarding mental health care in the US, something that leads to his current hobby – trapping unsuspecting victims on his property and then hunting them down with his rifle. He never shows an ounce of remorse and when he does emote, it’s only to revel in the excitement of another kill.
Bell marks another casting win for Keating and she’s also another actor who we should be seeing more often. She became a familiar face thanks to the success of The Last Exorcism, but has primarily stuck to smaller projects since. There is loads of quality work in Carnage Park, but there’s no way the movie would be as successful without someone like Bell in the lead role. The movie shifts perspectives quite a bit, going from the robbers to Vivian to Wyatt to Alan Ruck as a local cop and back again, but Bell manages to make Vivian feel like a much-needed anchor throughout. Each individual character has something personal at stake, but thanks to some spot-on non-linear storytelling and Bell’s charisma, you never forget that everything that happens in the film has an effect on Vivian’s fate, whether she’s directly involved in the matter at hand or not.
Carnage Park is also packed with technical achievements. The sepia color palette pairs perfectly with Keating’s shot selection and Giona Ostinelli’s score. Together, they manage to cover an especially impressive range between classic western heist flick and sheer nightmare. There are countless stunning frames and Keating’s also got quite the eye for camera movements that actually enhance the material. For example, you’ve got a great tracking shot of Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hébert) and Lenny (Michael Villar) strutting across a parking lot to rob the bank and it’s paired with this perfect piece of music that gives the moment a jubilant vibe and ups the momentum of the film as well. There’s also a great scene set in a cabin where the angle from which Keating chooses to cover the action undoubtedly enhances the intensity of the encounter.
Keating definitely has a knack for coming up with simple yet highly intriguing core concepts and doing a lot with minimal resources, but the one thing that’s present in a number of his films that I still haven’t quite adjusted to is the excess of screaming. Yes, it’s a horror movie and yes, someone might be yelling on the top of their lungs if they were really caught in this type of situation, but Carnage Park is a movie and the beauty of making a movie is that you can take artistic license with the material in an effort to make it entertaining and enjoyable. Keating certainly could have pulled the reins in that respect a bit, but you’ve got to give Bell some serious credit. This couldn’t have been an easy shoot for her and she nailed every beat of it.
Keep an eye on Keating. I’m betting he scores a big budget gig (or at least a bigger budget gig) sometime soon, but even if he continues to work in the independent realm, there’s no doubt we can count on him to keep delivering highly unique horror films.