NYFF 2011: ‘Carnage’ combines savvy scriptwriting, masterful direction, and awe-inspiring performances
Directed by Roman Polanski
Written by Roman Polansi
The inciting incident of Carnage involves two preadolescent boys having a disagreement in a public park. Their tiff escalates until one of them strikes the other in the face with a stick. The majority of the film then focuses on the parents of the youngsters as they meet to discuss the event in the civilized way grownups do. The parents of the injured boy, John C. Reilly and Jodi Foster, play host to the offender’s parents, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet. Their tête-à-tête starts off amiably enough, but it rapidly tailspins into a brawl of harsh words and other aggressive antics aided by the dissocializing effects of alcohol.
The opening shot of the two boys fighting happens from far away, keeping the audience at a distance. This seems to make a comment about how easily someone separate from the action can pass judgment on acts of violence. In much the same way, Foster’s character Penelope, the most liberal and politically correct player in this piece, deems herself an expert on the tragedies of Darfur and plans to write a book about it. She feels free to analyze violence even on such a grand scale as long as she perceives herself as beyond such baseness, but when confronted by hostility in her own household, her reactions are petty and viscerally untempered. In fact, as the characters unravel, Polanski makes frequent use of tight close-ups, so viewers can watch carefully as the primal aspects of these hyper-sensitive characters emerge from beneath their slipping facades.
Clearly one of Carnage’s biggest draws is its terrific cast. True, the actors don’t have to stretch very far to fit their roles. These parts all resemble types they’ve played before. Nevertheless these performances live up to the high standards established by the much deserved reputations of four acting greats. Waltz as the high-powered lawyer, a nasty bugger right from the start, changes the least and somehow makes the biggest impression. Perhaps this is because he has fewer pretenses to shed than the others. His barefaced narcissism enables him to interrupt conversations midway to accept constant phone calls from work, and he clearly has no compunction about calling his son a maniac. Yes, he completely disregards basic manners, but in contrast with the rest of the ensemble, this makes him appear more honest. Moreover, Winslet’s steady descent into drunkenness and the frustrated candor that accompanies it is well worth the watch.
The theatrical origin of this film, which adapts Yasmina Reza’s award-winning play “God of Carnage,” makes itself extremely evident. Putting aside the framing scenes filmed in a park, which is easy and perhaps best to do in the analysis of the story, the structure and setup of the movie even honors the classical unities of place, time, and action. Everything that occurs between parents takes place in real time in a single upscale Brooklyn apartment. There are some brief excursions to the corridor, bathroom, and kitchen, but for the most part the action confines itself to the living room. Despite multiple trips to the elevator, Winslet and Waltz have repeated difficulty dismissing themselves from an increasingly uncomfortable situation. On the stage this limitation of locality is a necessity. In a movie it amps up the tension and maybe also the absurdity, a completely justified absurdity given the irrational behavior both couples reveal as their interaction progresses.
Carnage seeks to peel away a veneer of hypocritical sophistication and scrutinize the barbaric tendencies that hide underneath. Thematically, it falls right into the Polanski oeuvre. As one would expect from a theatrical adaptation, the dialogue carries most of the film’s weight, and thankfully the writing proves highly cerebral and consistently witty. It provokes profound contemplations as often as it does easy laughter. Topics of conversation make grand leaps from simple and relevant subjects like proper childrearing to subjects like social consciousness and genocide. The more imposing the subject matter, the pettier the conversationalists appear. Though the characters may leave the last scene significantly less satisfied than they entered the movie, audiences will assuredly have the exact opposite reaction. Carnage combines savvy scriptwriting, masterful direction, and awe-inspiring performances to give moviegoers ninety briskly paced minutes of satire at its most enjoyable.
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