Carnage Park. 2016. Directed & Written by Mickey Keating.
Starring Ashley Bell, Pat Healy, James Landry Hébert, Michael Villar, Bob Bancroft, Larry Fessenden, Andy Greene, Alan Ruck, Graham Skipper, & Darby Stanchfield. Diablo Entertainment.
Unrated. 90 minutes.
Ever since seeing Ritual, I’ve been hooked on Mickey Keating. His directing and writing are a sight for sore eyes in the world of indie cinema. These days there are lots of talented people coming out of the independent scene. But Keating has an old school sensibility, a practical effects-driven manner of taking on horror specifically. The way he directs has a wonderfully rock n’ roll-style feel. The atmosphere of his movies is always wildly palpable, no matter what the ultimate main genre. Most recently Keating wowed me with Darling; a trip down the rabbit hole of guilt, murder, shame, and more.
Carnage Park does not come with anything overly original. It’s the way in which Keating gives the material over to us that’s exciting. Best of all, like Darling and its Roman Polanski vibes, this movie – via Keating admittedly – is fashioned after the Sam Peckinpah, machismo-filled 1970s films about dangerous men running wild on the fringe with guns and knives and big steel balls. At the same time, the movie switches genres, transforming from action-thriller into something more horror oriented as the various characters collide out in the eponymous park.
The opening sequence, while deranged in its own right even in comparison to what comes later, is a lot of fun. It has an energy that kicks the story off right. We get a taste of Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy) right off the bat, then it switches into us spending time with Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hébert), his soon to be dispatched buddy Lenny, and the kidnapped Vivian (Ashley Bell) in the trunk of Joe’s car. Keating keeps the pacing solid, moving fast. Everything gets really interesting then once the different characters come together, and the movie shifts gears.
Isolation is the key here. Under the cinematography of Mac Fisken the desert looks like a gaping, open wound, a vast and dry sore in the earth. Watching Vivian try to make her way through the large lot of privately owned land is akin to somebody wandering a giant hedge maze, but instead of any hedges it’s all sand, shrubs, rundown billboards, so on. The isolated hills in between which Vivian finds herself lost are so huge and far reaching that it’s impressive the way Fisken and Keating create a claustrophobic sense of that isolation. Like The Thing or any similarly remote set script, Carnage Park takes us out into the open while simultaneously bringing us deeper into our own minds, into the head of Vivian who’s faced with outrunning a maniac in the vast desert.
What I love is that this story Keating draws out, the characters and their respective plots, is all a disturbing little slice of Americana from the late ’70s. The unstable Army veteran at the centre of it all, Wyatt, has so clearly been affected negatively by the war. Meanwhile, his brother is the local sheriff, whose ideas about his brother seem pretty clear despite what he tells himself, and especially despite anything he admits to knowing. Within these two characters there’s wrapped a whole bunch of socioeconomic significance, as we consider everything from the dishonesty of those charged with serving and protecting, to the right of land owners in America (in certain states) to shoot anyone that comes onto their property, to the concept of all those men coming back from Vietnam, devastated emotionally and mentally, not receiving any proper care other than some cash and a pat on the back. Instead of a simple setup of a madman with no backstory there’s the fact Wyatt has been psychologically traumatised in the war, which sort of ups the ante on the usual scenario. Watching the various, hideous bits of American life unfold out across the sprawling hills on Wyatt’s property is a tense nightmare that’s hard to predict re: where it may head next.
The performances really help sell the whole thing. Bell does a nice enough job with her character, especially considering all the back and forth moments we see, going from being Scorpion Joe’s hostage to being at the fingertips of a demented ex-soldier, to the shocking scene where she stabs the wrong person than who she intended. She does well showing us the breakdown this woman experiences while going through the most trying day of her life. But best of all, Pat Healy – the god damn man, as far as indie movies are concerned. He’s been in lots of stuff, though never better than when working on something daring, something small, things like Cheap Thrills and The Innkeepers, among more. As Wyatt, we see him become a truly scary individual. At first you almost don’t know if he’s going to be some kind of anti-hero, the sort we’d expect out of a neo-noir-Western hybrid like this becomes now and then. Then when it’s becoming clear that Wyatt is the big evil in the situation there’s a feeling you start to get each time his eerie, smiling face comes into the frame that tells you: this guy is bad, bad, bad news. This is a great role, one that might end up as a load of generic garbage were it left to a less talented actor. Rather, Healy gives us lots to enjoy, as he touches all corners of the spectrum, creeping about, charming a little, and above all else terrifying his victims.
I do prefer other Keating films about this one. However, Carnage Park is a good time; through and through. The performances are one thing. The adrenaline pumping pace is what kept me glued. I can sit through all sorts of films, but a great effort usually has me consistently stuck to each scene, wondering where exactly things are about to move. Not once did I know for sure where the plot might go, or which characters would go on to survive. The ending didn’t totally eclipse me in any way. Still, it is a fantastic finish to a nicely executed bit of indie cinema. Whereas other filmmakers could have gone in vastly different directions throughout, Keating sticks to his old school style, his simple though beautiful way of directing. This way nothing strays too deep into familiar territory so as to bore the viewer. Ultimately, the cat-and-mouse thriller that frames the entire film is jammed full with suspense and the tension you’ll feel is like a chokehold. Keating takes you into the darkness fully, never once really letting you go. Take the ride, even more so if you dig his other directorial efforts. This one is yet another top notch instance of his talents.