Only six months in, 2022 is already proving to be the year of Jenna Ortega: Scream (2022), The Fallout, Studio 666, X, and now American Carnage, have solidified her as a true talent and this generation’s Scream Queen.
American Carnage is the absurdist, chaotic younger sibling of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and the ’70s classic Soylent Green. JP (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) works at Lady Liberty, a fast food restaurant in Los Angeles. His sister Lily (Yumarie Morales) will soon be attending Columbia University in New York, and her celebratory party is interrupted by an ICE raid. This raid is the result of Governor Finn’s (Brett Cullen) State of Emergency Executive Order calling for the arrest of all undocumented immigrants and their children. Even if the children were born in the United States, the order calls for their arrest because they were “aiding and abetting” their parents by not alerting authorities.
Once arrested, JP and Lily find themselves separated in a detention center. The District Attorney offers JP the opportunity to leave the detention center and begin the legal process of making his mother an American citizen. In exchange, JP must provide voluntary care at a home for the elderly as part of a community service program. JP boards the bus to the elder care facility with Big Mac (Allen Maldonado), Camila (Ortega), Chris (Jorge Diaz), and Micah (Bella Ortiz), all fellow American-born children of immigrants. Things at the Owl Cove center aren’t exactly what they seem, and a simple volunteer caretaker position turns into the fight of their lives.
While not as polished or nuanced as Peele’s Get Out, director/co-writer Diego Hallivis’ American Carnage is unabashed in its earnestness. The film is an obvious reaction to the anti-immigration rhetoric that’s being spewed by hateful people in power today. American Carnage opens with a montage that begins as a positive look at how essential and important different cultures are to making a country the best version of itself. The montage then goes to actual news clips of politicians’ fear-mongering speeches about the supposed threat immigrants pose to American culture. It’s a racist mindset that completely ignores America’s own history as an immigrant nation.
The film’s final showdown is angry, and not just because of what’s at stake for the main characters. It’s angry about where America finds itself today. The people who came to the United States were sold on the idea of the American Dream as a place to find happiness and success as long as you work hard enough. It’s a dream that’s more like a nightmare for those born with non-white skin. There was potential for American Carnage to really dig into the systemic ways racism is baked into the DNA of the United States, and the corporations and government officials that use immigrants for their own monetary gain without care for their safety and humanity. Just like American Carnage’s Lady Liberty.
American Carnage is a horror movie at its core. There are plenty of unnerving scenes that tend to skew more toward body horror than paranormal scares, but it’s not boxed into that genre. The main group of young adults, Big Mac and Camila especially, supplies more than enough comedy to make the film something beyond a social commentary B movie. Blending horror and comedy is quite a gamble, but these young actors arrived more than ready for the challenging balance act.
American Carnage is a fresh look at racism in the United States. The concept, multiple unexpected twists, and the talents of the young cast allow the movie to make the case for its existence. Unlike other high-concept horror films, American Carnage manages to follow through with the promises it makes. There’s so much in the film that could have been more thoroughly expanded and examined, but maybe that’s more of a critique of American society than of the film. The sheer immensity of anti-immigration, environmental abuse, and political misuse of power is so fundamentally grilled into U.S. history that a 100-minute movie couldn’t possibly address all those concepts fully.
All things considered, American Carnage is an intriguingly absurdist look at an America that doesn’t seem too different from the present day.