Picture, if you dare, the disturbing images that open Carny. Gary Busey, in all his glorious weirdness, sits in a dark room before a mirror, a single light illuminating his face from above, as he applies black, red, and white clown makeup, all the while bulging his eyes and baring his gigantic teeth to test the progress of his transformation. Insinuating music underscores the scene. And that’s how it is with Carny—strange and unpleasant things happen without much context. At varying points, Carny is funny, humane, insightful, sexy, and terrifying. Yet the film is also dull, pointless, and sloppy. Is it a horror movie about violent drifters who work in traveling carnivals? Is it a low-rent romantic triangle involving two grown men battling over the affections of a teenager? Is it a melodrama about outsider artists facing irrelevance thanks to shifting social mores? The answer to each of those questions is yes—but Carny is a disappointment nonetheless, because the film is made conventionally as to require a strong central storyline, which it lacks.
One can’t help but wonder whether producer, cowriter, and leading man Robbie Robertson—a genuine rock star known for his tenure as the Band’s guitarist and principal songwriter—imagined collaborating on this film with his friend Martin Scorsese. Although Carny exists way outside Scorsese’s preferred urban-crime milieu, surely Scorsese would have known how to wrangle the film’s ideas and textures into a coherent script. Clearly, Robertson did not. At its core, Carny spins a dishearteningly simple yarn. When the Great American Carnival rolls into a small town, 18-year-old waitress Donna (Jodie Foster) becomes infatuated with Frankie (Busey), a “geek” who spends his nights inside a cage above a water tank, taunting rubes so they’ll pay to dunk him. Donna leaves home to, as the saying goes, run away with the circus. This causes friction with Frankie’s best friend, Patch (Robertson), the carnival’s fixer. (He breaks up fights and pays bribes to officials in towns the carnival visits.) The movie also has about a dozen subplots, some of which receive no more than a moment or two of screen time, and eventually the Donna business turns sordid when she becomes a dancer in the carny’s girlie show.
There’s a lot of everything in Carny, as evidenced by the massive supporting cast: Elisha Cook Jr., Meg Foster, Kenneth MacMillan, Bill McKinney, Tim Thomerson, Fred Ward, Craig Wasson, and more. The film also bursts with special people portraying sideshow performers. All of these characters wander through engrossing vignettes, so the plot sometimes feels like an interruption. Not helping matters is Alex North’s truly awful musical score, which turns unhelpfully comedic during dark moments. You’d think Robertson would have at least gotten the music right in his capacity as producer, especially since his acting is naturalistic but forgettable. Busey is unhinged whenever he’s in geek mode, and he brings surprising tenderness to quiet scenes. Foster, meanwhile, delivers an atypically indifferent performance, but she’s quite beguiling here—as in her other 1980 film, Foxes, Foster seemed determined to demonstrate after a three-year screen hiatus that she was no longer a juvenile.