Thursday, January 19, 2012

Carnage Movie Review

Carnage is an interesting choice for director Roman Polanski. It’s been 25 years since his last comedy, Pirates, and that was a complete flop. He tends toward dramatic thrillers more than anything. Perhaps after the recent troubles he’s had with his arrest in Switzerland and near extradition back to the United States he needed some light-hearted fare to ease the stress. In the French stage farce God of Carnage by playwright Yasmina Reza, who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski, he found material for his next movie. Among the themes that tie his movies together is an often nihilistic view of a Godless world. The personal tragedies of his life may or may not have contributed to his being drawn to such subject matter, but being stripped of his parents in the Holocaust and losing his wife and unborn child to the murderous Manson family are events that can hardly be ignored when evaluating his work. Though Carnage is a comedic farce, it retains some of the motifs we find in his other work.


The premise and staging of Carnage are quite simple: two couples meet in one apartment to have a civil discussion about how best to handle a violent altercation that took place between their 11-year old sons. The parents of the victim, who suffered the loss of two teeth, are Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly). Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet play Alan and Nancy Cowan, whose son Zachary whacked Ethan with a stick. Structured in a standard three acts beginning with the four behaving civilly even when Alan, a lawyer, continually answers his cell phone to discuss a potential pharmaceutical recall well past the point when all three are visibly uncomfortable. Eventually there’s a transition to building tension and airing of grievances, signaled most sickeningly by Nancy vomiting all over the Longstreet coffee table and Penelope’s highfalutin art books. Finally, there’s a turn as Michael and Alan briefly unite in a show of masculinity while drinking Scotch, butting heads with the more pragmatic women.

It’s the first two acts that garner the biggest laughs of the film’s mercifully brief 80 minute running time. Alan’s detached, slightly perturbed nonchalance about the whole ordeal and Michael’s blue collar conservative posing as liberal have the greatest opportunities and meatiest moments. These two actors, Reilly especially, give perhaps the best performances of their careers. Winslet and Foster are equally splendid through the first two acts. Nancy is a bit underdeveloped and Winslet does everything she can with her. Penelope, on the other hand, is the juiciest role. A liberal with a straight-forward way of looking at morals in the world, she’s writing a book about the conflict in Darfur, a fact about which Alan has some insensitive insights. As tensions rise beyond the breaking point and the four imbibe more than they should the script passes from witty comic farce to hysterical mania. Foster in particular pushes her performance well past the point of believability. She loses control and forces the character in the end.

It’s a tricky thing to take a play set in one location and turn it into a film. The conventions of the stage are quite different and to take something static and make it cinematic has to be handled well or else not attempted at all. Given the action of the story, the claustrophobic setting makes sense to help build the tension. Polanski might have studied Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men which employs a shooting style that reflects the action. Carnage, as created by Polanski, is bookended by dialogue-less scenes of the boys in the park. This not only gets us out into the open a bit, but in the case of the final one which plays out under the end credits, provides an ironic twist to the disagreements the parents had over the previous hour and a quarter. Inside the apartment, Polanski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman use reflective surfaces as often as possible to help open up the space within the tight confines of the Longstreet domicile. The blue screen shots of the Manhattan skyline through the windows and the occasional tell-tale sounds of distant sirens help establish the New York setting (we know Polanski can’t travel to the U.S. to shoot movies).

What do we learn from this movie? What can we say about human nature and the difficulty of raising children in a modern society in which people still fall prey to base instincts? In the end, nihilism wins. The Longstreets have concerns and questions, all legitimate as far as I’m concerned, that never reach any sort of resolution. They all initially establish that Zachary is the guilty party and that he owes Ethan an apology, but the first sign of disagreement comes when Penelope scoffs at the idea that his parents will force him to apologize. Within her fair-minded liberal ideology, he must come to it himself or it’s meaningless. It doesn’t take very long before a quest for a fair resolution gives way to revelations about discord within both marriages. Despite all their attempts to be better than the moral depravity all around them, these are four people who, much to Penelope’s surprise, resort to those base instincts she thinks she’s risen above. Hopefully finishing her book on the Darfur tragedy will bring some peace to her later because she certainly won’t find it in this company.

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