Old 01-12-2012, 08:25 PM
Roman Polanski's Carnage

Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:



Carnage (2011)

Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” presents us with an incredibly simple premise. One couple has come over to another couples home in order to discuss an incident that involved their kids, one of whom hit the other in the face with a stick. Everything starts off fine. The assailant’s parents, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), are very apologetic, wishing they had been able to meet under different circumstances. Meanwhile, the victim’s parents, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), try to be as hospitable as they can, offering them coffee and cobbler.

However, we quickly see that something is not quite right here. From early on, we see that even simple word choice comes under scrutiny (Alan objects to Penelope saying that his son was “armed” with a stick). The meeting begins in a civil manner, but we slowly begin to realize that these characters are merely putting on facades, hiding their true feelings regarding the situation, which are hinted at as Penelope snaps how she wishes her son wouldn’t have had to lose two teeth in order for them to meet.

In a sense, “Carnage” is a study of the breakdown of these characters’ facades over the course of having to put up with each other. The situation is awkward from the start since none of them wants to be placed in that position of having to admit their kid did something wrong or having to deal with the parents of a kid who did something wrong. The one who begins to show his true feelings earliest is Alan, who, as an attorney, is a very busy man, constantly whipping out his cell phone to deal with a client. He appears detached from the situation from pretty much the very start.

This, in turn, starts annoying everyone else who appears to want to take the situation seriously, especially Nancy, who wants to try to pin blame not only on her son, but on Penelope’s and Michael’s as well because their son called their son a snitch and is also the leader of a gang. So, from Alan’s seeming lack of interest in the situation, a breakdown of morals begins to occur as the characters begin to say what they really feel.

The film becomes an interesting character study that shows that when parents are trying to deal with their kids, they can end up behaving like kids themselves, attempting to shift blame from themselves to others. The conversation kind of goes all over the place and ends up ranging from interesting to less interesting. It’s most compelling when their dealing with the issue at hand, but less so when it takes a detour into other areas that make the film feel like it goes on hold for a few minutes.

For instance, early on, when Nancy’s nerves get riled up too much, she vomits onto some of Penelope’s art books. The film pauses for a little while so that everything and everyone can get cleaned up, though it does throw in a scene or two of the couples talking about each other, revealing what they really think of them, not that we can’t already tell that these couples don’t think too much of each other.

This is clearly shown as the day continues and the conversation becomes more and more hostile. We eventually learn that Michael didn’t really want to have this meeting either. Later on, when he finds his own nerves rattled, he pulls out a bottle of whiskey and offers some to Alan, who is only too willing to accept what with his shared lack of enthusiasm. The film probably would have been a little more effective had the writers, Yasmina Reza and Roman Polanski (who adapted the screenplay form Reza’s play “God of Carnage”), not chosen to go the route of having the characters drink in order to become more open with each other, but instead had the characters come to a natural catharsis on their own. As mentioned, the conversation does kind of go all over the place, but even more so when they begin drinking the whiskey. However, it does stay focused enough to remain quite engaging.

The highlights of “Carnage” are the wonderful performances from the entire four-person cast, all of them Oscar nominees, three of them winners. This seems like a very strange role for Reilly, but he does quite well with it nonetheless. Waltz is effective at playing a man somewhat detached from the situation with seemingly more important things to him on his mind. Foster and Winslet bring the most emotion to the film as their characters are the ones actually trying to solve the problem, but not really getting anywhere with it what with their building hatred of each other and the unwillingness of anyone to accept the blame.

“Carnage” comes from famed, Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski, who has brought us such memorable films as “The Pianist” and “Chinatown.” Here he has crafted a bizarre little film that runs only about 75 minutes, uses one location, and only four characters who spend most of the film sitting/standing around talking or shouting at each other. Yet the film is engaging and entertaining to watch as these excellent performers show us that even the seemingly-nicest of people can show their true colors when pushed too far. Unlike “A Dangerous Method” (based on the play “The Talking Cure”), this play has adapted rather well to film, showing us that sometimes all it takes is some interesting dialogue and great performers to immerse the audience in the experience. 3/4 stars.
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