By Linc Leifeste | December 16, 2011
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christopher Waltz, John C. Reilly
I walked into the theater to see Roman Polanski’s new film Carnage intentionally in the dark about what I was going to watch. My ideal state of mind walking in to the theater…I didn’t know the plot, the stars, anything. Clueless. That’s how I like to be. Well, scratch that. Almost clueless. I did know Polanski was the director and I know that all the controversy surrounding Polanski is limited to his personal life, something I could care less about when the lights go down, and not his films. The man knows how to make a movie. I’ll admit I was somewhat surprised when I noticed the film poster outside the theater and saw John C. Reilly staring back at me, especially considering the make-up of the rest of the cast, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
An adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play Gods of Carnage, the film tells the story of two couples brought together by an unfortunate act of violence that has occurred between their two preteen sons during a playground scuffle gone awry. Other than the opening and closing shots of the boys on the playground, the whole (short at 80 minutes) film takes place in the Brooklyn apartment of Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), whose son was on the receiving end of the playground altercation. Alan (Christopher Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet), the parents of the unbloodied child, show up at the Longstreet apartment to have an amicable adult discussion about the incident and determine the best way to proceed.
No surprise here, the discussions soon begin to unravel and things get messy, really messy, as marital cracks become exposed and then grow and societal restraints are quickly dropped in favor of more primitive and ingrained impulses. Initial marital and parental alliances eventually give way to gender alliances before eventually things devolve into each person for themselves. While there is something negative to be said about the more predictable elements of how the film unfolds, watching these four actors admirably plying their craft, at least for me, redeemed a multitude of sins as sharp, witty dialogue delivered by skilled actors is often in short supply.
The main problem I had with Carnage is that I found myself at multiple times during the film realizing I was watching a play that had been turned into a movie. The whole movie is the (admittedly brilliant) dialogue but I had trouble believing that these characters would have continued to subject themselves to this much painful discourse. There are multiple moments in the film when the Cowans are set to exit the apartment and take the elevator ride down to the rest of their day only to return to the Longstreet’s apartment for yet more dialogue and this struck me as less than plausible. Why would these people continue to do this to themselves? The real reason, of course, being that this was initially a play written for presentation on one set on stage. But what I could have appreciated on stage I had a hard time buying on the big screen.
Watching Carnage also put me in mind of another recent well-crafted film that I strongly disliked, Melancholia, the commonality being a film dripping with nihilism and stocked almost exclusively with flawed and nearly unlikeable people. I found myself wondering why I had such different reactions to the two films, having thoroughly enjoyed Carnage, and I came up with two reasons. Carnage has a biting sense of humor, to the degree that I found myself laughing out loud multiple times, combined with just the smallest ray of light. The closing silent and distant scene on the playground between the two children, after seeing the ugly unraveling of the adult negotiations their earlier conflict has set off, loudly speaks of the beauty and hope of innocence.