Film Review: The Carnivores

the-carnivoresThe Carnivores isn’t about meat. But it’s not, not about meat. The plot of Caleb Michael Johnson’s (Joy Kevin) sophomore feature involves a couple who struggle to maintain their relationship because of their terminally ill dog, Harvie. Brett (Lindsay Burdge, The Invitation) is more emotionally invested in keeping Harvie alive for as long as possible despite the fact that his treatments are taking them beyond their means. Meanwhile, Alice (Tallie Medel) obsesses over their negative finances and how often she and Brett are intimate (not very). Flesh is a recurring theme in this surreal psychological romantic horror film co-written by Johnson and Jeff Bay Smith. What does it mean that we both consume flesh and are made of flesh? Why is some meat precious and other meat food?

The Carnivores also explores how a pet can be a major point of contention in a relationship. Brett has had Harvey the dog for 2 years longer than she has known Alice. The fact that she even mentions this to Alice speaks volumes, since Alice is painfully aware of the hierarchy. Harvey has been sick for a long time. But he is undergoing expensive life-prolonging treatments because Brett can’t bear to let him go. She isn’t even considering how much of a strain his ailment is on their lives. Alice secretly tracks their finances, her sleep, and their sex life, all of which are woefully sparse. To make matters worse, Alice has started to sleepwalk and crave meat despite her longtime vegan diet. Alice keeps her disconcerting thoughts from Brett, but appears to confide in a loquacious, know-it-all co-worker – he references details of her life despite their seemingly one-sided lunch conversations…

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Film Review: Union

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Whitney Hamilton writes, directs, and stars in Union, a sort of sequel to her 2005 film My Brother’s War (and both films are based on her novel, Firefly). Hamilton was inspired by the over 400 women who disguised themselves as men in order to fight for their side in the American Civil War. Union focuses on one such woman (Hamilton), who assumes the identity of her dead brother, Henry. Hamilton channels directors Jane Campion and Kelly Reichardt for her western romantic saga with a splash of verité. The film suffers from a lack of editing and some spotty peripheral performances, but fans of the genre, and those craving a nuanced queer romance will find much to love.

[The protagonist’s true gender identity is never expressly stated but since Virginia calls her partner “Henry” even when they’re alone together, I will use male pronouns from here on out. My apologies to Hamilton if this is a misrepresentation of the character.]

Union opens with a gritty re-enactment of the battle of Gettysburg. While fighting for the Confederate side, Henry is wounded on the battlefield and calls out to his love, Virginia (Virginia Newcomb), before passing into unconsciousness. When he wakes in a Union hospital, his biology is betrayed, which saves him from hanging, but also lands him an unwanted engagement to the man who stays his execution. Henry escapes and sets off to reunite with Virginia. Along the way, he is helped by some Native Americans who revere his gender duality but haunted by a promise he made to his former paramour who died in his arms. Meanwhile, Virginia also faces an unwanted betrothal at her brother’s insistence, fights to keep soldiers from stealing her farm, and takes in a pregnant widow.

Cinematographer William Schweikert delivers some truly breathtaking shots of the night sky and nature. Liberal use of what I assume are drone cameras gives the micro-budget film an epic quality. History buffs will appreciate the commitment to authenticity. Hamilton basically became a Civil War reenactor to get in good with people who had access to period costumes and the locations she needed. She was able to film in actual historic buildings and locations in Alabama and Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, it feels like many of the extras and tertiary roles are played by said reenactors, who aren’t as good with line readings as they are with historical accuracy.

The leads, on the other hands, deliver like gangbusters, particularly Newcomb who brings a young Sissy Spacek intensity to the proceedings. She wears her prairie dresses and hardened scowl like a second skin. Hamilton and Newcomb also have tremendous chemistry and when they’re apart, you feel the hole left by their absent sweetheart. They absolutely glow through their tender, candle-lit love scene, a welcome respite from the near-constant peril these characters face from beginning to end.

The trouble lies in the editing, which employs a confusing non-linear story and too much time spent away from the electric leads. If Hamilton turned around 40 minutes of Union into epistolary voiceover exposition, it would have helped with pacing and kept the focus on the bold women at the center of the story. When Hamilton does employ epistolary voiceover, it works very well with the genre, because this was a time when letter writing was an art. It was very possible that every letter contained your last words to someone you loved.

I very much enjoyed the recurring motif of a Shawnee man telling Henry’s story to his people. This is where some of the more beautiful imagery comes into play and it draws a parallel between two types of marginalized people in the early 19th Century. Union also adeptly addresses how prevalent the patriarchy was in a woman’s life. It was considered every woman’s duty to give themselves over to a man and to child-rearing. Anyone who chose another path risked their very life in doing so. Overall, Union is a valuable addition to the underrepresented genre of LGBTQIA+ historical cinema.

Union is currently streaming on HBO, itunes, VUDU, Fandango, Direct TV, Youtube, Google Play, Amazon Prime and other platforms.