Located in the dusty stretch of hell that lies between homage and pastiche, Mickey Keating’s “Carnage Park” is a lean, mean, motherfucker of a movie that confirms the young director’s outsized potential but fails to follow through on his most explicit promise. A twisted “true crime” story that’s heavily indebted to Quentin Tarantino and boasts all the historical validity of “Inglourious Basterds,” this gnarly gore-fest opens with the kind of reckless, apocryphal declaration that’s only made by geniuses or kids too young to know any better: “The film you are about to see is perhaps the most bizarre episode in the annals of American crime.” That’s a mighty big gauntlet to drop at the feet of an unsuspecting audience, but “Carnage Park” nearly lives up to its own hype — at least for a little while, anyway.
1978. A deranged Vietnam vet named Wyatt Moss (played by the uncomfortably convincing Pat Healy) perches on a mound of dirt in the California desert and peers down the barrel of his sniper rifle. “God don’t pick no favorites” the man announces to no one in particular as he fires a shot that rips through one of the poor saps who wandered onto his property. The violence is a fitting introduction to what Keating has in store, but the jaundiced color scheme conveys just as much about the movie to come — set in a musty yellow nightmare in which all of the characters are almost as pallid as the world around them, “Carnage Park” dilutes the arid nihilism of Peter Watkins with a potent drop of pulp fiction.
Off we go, baby-stepping back in time to “Reservoir Dogs” as Keating cuts to a getaway car as it speeds away from the scene of a bank robbery gone wrong. A wiry felon named Scorpion Joe (James Landry Hébert) has a foot on the pedal and a hand on the wheel, while his partner (Michael Villar) bleeds out in the backseat. If you listen closely, you can hear a hostage named Vivian (Ashley Bell) screaming from the trunk, waiting to fulfill her destiny as the film’s final girl. She won’t have to wait long — a wrong turn on Scorpion Joe’s escape route has led he and his pal straight into Wyatt’s crosshairs, setting up a savage round of cat-and-mouse in which the fuzz are the last thing her fugitive captors have to worry about. Keating’s killer isn’t much interested in them either; as in most movies like this, it’s the young woman in the stained cotton blouse who’s privileged as the most dangerous game.
Despite the obviousness of its debts to other filmmakers (cut to: Scorpion Joe and his cohort walking towards the bank in slow-motion as a jaunty Asian pop tune plays in the background), “Carnage Park” is the most accomplished of the five features that its 25-year-old director has made to date. Previous efforts like “Pod” and “Darling” were effective genre exercises in their own right, but the best sequences here feel like the work of someone who is starting to settle in to his talent — one top-down shot in which Vivian strains for something on the other side of a fence is a self-contained masterclass in cinematic suspense, good enough to suggest that Keating might be on the cusp of graduating from a collage artist to a creator in his own right. In the meantime, it helps that it’s been a minute since we’ve seen such an unabashed Tarantino riff, and even longer since we’ve seen been treated to one with this kind of poise and clear sense of purpose.
Ironically, “Carnage Park” only falls apart when Keaton wanders away from Tarantino (and Watkins, and Peckinpah) and more towards his comfort zone of conventional horror. Despite texturing his plot with a delightfully conflicted supporting character (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” star Alan Ruck as Wyatt’s sheriff brother) and puncturing it with a bold fake-out at the end of the second act, Keating can’t find enough story to keep this train from running out of track.
Despite evocatively establishing Wyatt’s compound as a serial killer’s funhouse (this place has everything: hanging crucifixes, barbed wire, megaphones blaring creepy gibberish…), Keating sinks the house into absolute darkness almost as soon as Vivian starts to explore it, shooting his endless climactic passage in pitch black. It’s a bold gambit, but one that snuffs out his mordantly self-conscious visual style, and eventually grows insufferable as it starts to feel like the director is just stalling for time — even at 80 minutes, things are stretched far too thin. You might as well be watching the last 15 minutes with your eyes closed, which is a shame, as the first half of “Carnage Park” makes a strong case that Keating is someone whose stuff is worth seeing.
“Carnage Park” is currently in limited release and on VOD with a further expansion to follow.