Set in 1978, two robbers botch their bank heist in a small Californian town and flee into the desert with a hostage in tow.  Their day goes from bad to worse when they wind up deep in the desert, smack in the middle of land belonging to an ex-military sniper.  This sniper is not only well-trained, but he’s mentally imbalanced and his favorite pastime includes hunting people for sport.   A harrowing fight for survival ensues.

Written and directed by Mickey Keating, it’s clear that this is his love letter to ‘70s cinema.  It’s a mash-up of genres, from crime caper to gritty survivalist horror, and the result is a frenetically paced thrill ride. The stylized rock and roll soundtrack set against the explosive character introductions and emphasis on dialogue gives a Quentin Tarantino feel to the first act. This gives way to the survivalist horror aspect, a gritty callback to films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in terms of both narrative and visual themes.

While his previous works Pod and Darling feel more restrained and quiet, Carnage Park explodes on screen with style and violence in abundance.

Despite the fast pacing and very short run-time, Keating masterfully handles character work.  Almost each character on screen feels fully fleshed out no matter how brief their appearance.    Though we meet Vivian as a terrified hostage, flashbacks give us enough backstory to hint that Vivian has an iron will for survival. A farm girl, Vivian proves equal parts scrappy and vulnerable and makes for an endearing final girl against the almost machine-like Wyatt Moss–the film’s villain. Pat Healy seems to revel in his role as Moss, making the character more interesting than expected when no actual backstory is revealed.  The only detail given that could explain Moss’ psychosis is that he’s ex-military.  Other than Healy’s maniacal glee, Moss is almost Terminator-like in the hunting of his prey. James Landry Hebert as would-be robber Scorpion Joe is a scene stealer.  Scorpion Joe exudes a certain rock star bravado; unabashed with his moral corruption.

The desert setting is just as much of a character as any of the actors on screen.  Brightly shot and washed in warm colors, the photography deftly conveys that the landscape is just as much of a threat to Vivian as Wyatt Moss. Even if she can get away from the sadistic sniper, she can’t outrun Mother Nature. The setting is so effectively utilized that you can almost feel the dry heat emanating from the screen.

For all the Carnage Park gets right, it doesn’t quite stick its landing. 

But for all the Carnage Park gets right, it doesn’t quite stick its landing.  A style choice with the seeming intention of invoking the frantic paranoia of Vivian winds up confusing instead.  It’s such a misstep that it almost feels as though the budget ran out at this precise, peak moment.  It doesn’t help that this moment drags out far too long and ultimately halts the pacing of the narrative. The climax deflates the impact of the emotional payoff a bit as a consequence.

Despite a disappointing ending to a fun ride, Keating continues to up his game with every outing. While his previous works Pod and Darling feel more restrained and quiet, Carnage Park explodes on screen with style and violence in abundance. It’s his most widely accessible film so far and shows exciting promise for what’s to come from the young auteur. It’s a mish mash of ‘70s genres inspired by The Most Dangerous Game that culminates in to a stylized homage, and it works.  Though far from perfect, Carnage Park is worth playing in.

Carnage Park opens in New York and on demand on July 1st, 2016.  The film opens in Los Angeles on July 8th, 216.Carnage Park poster

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