Carnage Park

by Derek Deskins

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday July 1, 2016

Ashley Bell stars in 'Carnage Park'
Ashley Bell stars in 'Carnage Park'   

The intensity with which "Carnage Park" chooses to begin is riveting and just a bit impressive. It doesn't wait around to start living up to its name. It knows what you came for -- the carnage -- so here you go. But that excitement to deliver on its own promises is inevitably the film's own demise. It gives it up so quickly and is then left scrambling to cobble together something resembling a feature length film.

The titular Carnage Park is a long stretch of remote California land in the late 1970s, owned and overseen by Wyatt Moss (Pat Healy). Moss, a Vietnam vet, with extensive marksmanship skills and something of an aversion to outsiders, is quiet and odd. When a couple of bank robbers stumble onto Moss' land with a young hostage in tow, they end up biting off more than they can chew. The young hostage is then left in this tortuous hellscape, running from a mad man whose only joy comes from this villainous game of cat-and-mouse.

When "Fargo" came out and it falsely claimed to be based on a true story (because the Coen Brothers love to toy with their audience), many were pissed to find out they had been lied to. The very thing that the Coen Brothers were preying on, that false investment that so often comes from hearing that a story was based on real life, annoyed many when it was forced in their face. But "Fargo" is more than its conceit and in many ways, its lie acted as a representation of its very characters. So when "Carnage Park" tries to employ this same lie, even going so far as to repeat the "names have been changed" line nearly verbatim, it feels tired and sets itself quite a high bar.

But that's what "Carnage Park" does: It borrows from better films. It isn't so much a complete film as an assembly of stylistic flourishes lifted from its superiors. After its brief (but admittedly captivating) opening, it quickly changes gears into full Tarantino rip-off. As Scorpion Joe and Lenny go barreling down the road, with Lenny squealing in pain from a gut shot, it feels far too close to "Reservoir Dogs" to be considered homage. Writer-director Michael Keating even does his best Tarantino impression when it comes to dialogue, although he fails to capture the sardonic wit and gruff attitude that Tarantino so easily pulls off. You aren't intrigued by the two criminals in the car, you are bored, wishing that just maybe we could have gotten something that put as much effort into its writing and shot structure as it does its aping of style.

That isn't to say that "Carnage Park" is without its charms. Its cast is tapped into this grindhouse sensibility wonderfully and deliver performances that are far superior to what is on the page. Pat Healy in particular continues to prove that he is one of the most underappreciated character actors gracing so much genre fare. His Wyatt isn't so much unhinged as comfortably on his own path. He is undoubtedly a psychopath, but Healy imbues a nearly childlike quality that makes his villain somewhat endearing, at least until he goes full "My Bloody Valentine" and disappears behind a gas mask. Ashley Bell does all she can as Vivian, but the part isn't exactly written with nuance. She at the very least serves as audience proxy more than adequately. As for Alan Ruck, well I guess every B-movie has to have its recognizable face, even if he is wasted on a nothing role.

This has all started to feel unfortunately negative on "Carnage Park." I really didn't dislike the movie. It's just that it tries so hard to be so many things that it doesn't take the time to be itself. It wants to be a slasher with a Peckinpah visual vocabulary and the words of Tarantino, but instead it feels like something of a mess without a voice. Its gore is admirably done, and thankfully the effects are practical, but they don't add to the proceedings, delivered with more of a shrug than a purpose.

Maybe "Carnage Park" would have lived better as a short, where the trappings of a feature runtime, which this film only barely ekes out, don't really get in the way. Writer-director Michael Keating has at least proven that he knows how to build tension well; the problem is that he doesn't know what to do with the build. At many points, "Carnage Park" reminded me a great deal of another genre western, "Bone Tomahawk." Both greet the audience with an intriguing concept and great promise but falter in the delivery. Filmmakers need to remember that a film cannot be all style. You need some of that substance to make it worthwhile.