Part coming-of-age chronicle, part road movie, Carny is memorablefor Jodie Foster's sexy, intelligent heroine and the pivotal influence of costar, cowriter, and producer Robbie Robertson. As principal songwriter and guitarist in The Band, Robertson had already been accorded the stature of rock auteur by some critics; when director Martin Scorsese captured the musician's laconic sex appeal and deep, mesmerizing speaking voice on celluloid for The Last Waltz, the seed was planted for the Canadian rocker to graduate from documentary to dramatic feature.
The lurid, colorful carnival milieu also dovetails with Robertson's Band legacy as songwriter, and his penchant for crafting picaresque story lines with a vivid sense of place. Robertson is Patch, a carny veteran whose de facto partner is the leering, cruel Frankie (Gary Busey), an abusive clown, and the film lingers on the tawdry and menacing world behind the carny's garish public spaces. When the young, self-confident Donna (Foster) shows up and joins the troupe, the bonds between Patch and Frankie are strained. Donna's walk on the wild side brings her in intimate, sometimes dangerous proximity to the freaks and lowlifes that populate this world, which the writers and director Robert Kaylor savor for its atmosphere of outsider surrealism.
Foster acquits herself wonderfully, making this a revealing step between the prematurely hardened nymphet of Taxi Driver and the actress's first truly adult roles, soon to follow. Busey and Robertson fare less well, their work long on mannerism but ultimately cryptic to a fault. Like the movie itself, they transmit a cynicism that seems hollow without more real insight into how they came to inhabit this netherworld, and why they can't escape it. --Sam Sutherland