Frankie (Gary Busey) works in a carnival, where nightly he takes the role of Bozo the Clown, whose job it is to sit on a plank in a cage above a tank of water, then taunt the punters who are encouraged to pay to throw baseballs at a target. If they hit a target, Bozo lands in the water and they have the satisfaction of seeing his insults recveive their just desserts. One such punter is Mickey (Craig Wasson) who is there with his girlfriend Donna (Jodie Foster), but he fails miserably to dunk Bozo and stomps off, though later Donna is approached by Frankie and there's a spark between them...
Seeing the period this was made in, the opening credits of Carny look as if Busey was making himself up as a clown to go and slaughter a bunch of victims in a slasher movie, what with the intense closeup, the darkness, and the creepy music courtesy of Alex North. It was more of a drama about life on the road with carnival workers, but the air of menace never quite left it, as if violence was always just about to erupt, and indeed it does, signalling these people are operating somewhere below the law with their money-making scams and know-how. That Jodie Foster wanted to be part of this world was undeniably curious considering the more sophisticated areas her career went thereafter.
It wasn't really Jodie, of course, she was playing a character, but this was the main indication that she was willing to take chances as an adult actress even if it wasn't much of a hit, which was a pity for its director Robert Kaylor, a documentarian turning his hand to fiction, for he didn't get many chances following this to make his mark otherwise. What Carny was, naturally, was a cult movie, and there were a few good reasons for that, one being that you could take your pick of the main cast for there were a clutch of cult actors to appreciate. Busey in particular was excellent as the friendly Frankie who transforms into a caustic comedian once he's in the cage; Donna decides early she wants to stay with him.
So for her, this was a tale of running away to join, not the circus but the carnival, which was a lot sleazier choice as depicted here. In truth Foster didn't quite convince as a Southern gal who feels the wanderlust, but Kaylor made this a benefit for the movie as Donna not fitting in with her surroundings goes some way to explaining why the other corner of the central love triangle resents her so much, at least for the first half of the story. That other corner was one more reason this found a following, as Robbie Robertson took his debut acting role after years in the music industry, also contributing to the script and producing; he acquitted himself very well, and should have sought other films to appear in.
He didn't, so the movie industry's loss was music's gain, but his Patch made an intriguing element of the central relationship which enabled this to end on a more optimistic note than the uneasy tone of what came before it might have indicated. Aggrieved punters who don't like to be so easily parted with their cash are one thing, but when the mobsters get involved, that violent mood seems to be about to break, and there are scenes on the brink of a riot: see where Patch tricks Donna into thinking she can join the strippers on stage to prove her worth, only to freeze in fear as things get too rowdy. Jodie's gay fans would be more interested in the scene where she scams a lesbian couple by shamelessly flirting with them, yet another move towards cult status, though not often mentioned was the resemblance between Carny and Freaks: Kaylor didn't exactly tip this over into horror, but he came very close to it, rendering the us and them, order restored ending a lot spikier (and maybe less convincing) than it might have been.