Day 116: Carnage

"We'll worry about the victims after we have the shareholder's meeting."

Roman Polanski is one of the only directors that people have an opinion of beyond the films he makes. Some people won't even watch his movies, not because of any of his films' content, but because he was convicted of a crime a long time ago, and fled America rather than face his punishment. The story behind all of that is long and involved and has been covered at great length elsewhere. I bring it up only to indicate how hypocritical people can be. In general, humans like to take the moral high ground on issues where they don't know all the details. It reminds me of John Adams' attack on John Dickinson in 1776 when he accuses him of "hang(ing) to the rear on every issue, so that if the rest of us should go under, you'll still remain afloat." I've said this before and I'll say it again, films should be judged solely on their content, not on the details of the private lives of those involved in its making (unless that has some direct effect on the film's success or failure).

Of late, Polanski hasn't been the kind of director to set the box office on fire, but his latest film, Carnage, was met with indifference when it was released late last year, and I find that unfortunate. As a film, it reminds me a lot of Doubt, as it's based on a play with no easy answers that provides its viewers with a wonderful jumping off point for conversation. Based on God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, the film tells the story of two couples brought together by an incident that occurred between their 11 year-old sons on the school playground. Alan (Christoph Waltz) & Nancy's (Kate Winslet) son hit Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael's (John C. Reilly) son with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. The former have come to home of the latter to meet and discuss the incident, ostensibly in the hopes of getting the boys together to do the same.

The fact that these are two sets of people that run in very different circles is immediately evident. Alan & Nancy seem to belong to an elite upper class conservative society while Penelope & Michael are very much the picture of buttoned-down upper middle class liberals. It's also very clear, almost immediately, that Penelope & Michael are putting on airs. Nancy seems to be understanding of the situation, and while clearly annoyed with having to even have this meeting in the first place, she seems to be making the best of it all. Alan could care less. He's an attorney, and is constantly fielding phone calls from various people he works with, as they are dealing with the fallout from a popular blood pressure medication's side effects.

At first, the meeting is civil but awkward, and an air of discontent hangs over the entire thing. The events unfold, more or less, in one room and in real time. There's a few trips into the hallway, as well as the bathroom & kitchen, but these people are trapped in a dead-end argument with both sides shifting power. As revelations are made and facts are lorded over their respective heads, Michael & Penelope soon become prisoners in their own house. It's an interesting dynamic that shifts quite a bit over the course of the films' very short, 80 minute running time, and they cover myriad topics from animal cruelty to art to African social constructs. It sounds a whole lot more pretentious than it actually is, and maybe it's my background in theatre that allows me to overlook the way the characters draw straight lines from their kids' conflict to the conflicts of feudal warlords in Africa, but it never felt out of the ordinary to me.

The performances are fantastic from all four leads. I've heard of stage productions wherein all four actors learn the entire show and then switch roles from performance to performance, and while at first that seemed insane to me, after seeing it, it makes more sense because these people all run the gamut and there's no defined physical limitations to any one of their characters. Obviously, being a film, the casting is much more rigid, as I could never see any of these actors playing the other's part, but they all master their character's arcs.

Waltz is an actor that we haven't seen enough of yet, if only because everything he does is phenomenal. His Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds deserves its place in the lexicon of great screen villains, and here he shows how good he can be when he plays things subtly. Winslet is one of my favorite actresses, and she has the most difficult role as her facade is so built up at the beginning that she inevitably has the biggest plunge, and she handles it extremely well, as to be expected. Foster is an actress who is so great, it makes me sad when I see her in a film that I don't see her more in films, but here, she plays a woman of slow-burning intensity better than I think anyone else could have. Reilly is a master actor, and no one can move as deftly between films like this and broad comedy like Step Brothers and Walk Hard. He's perfectly cast here as a guy dressed up by his wife to be something he very clearly is not.

The film is very funny, and has a lot of laugh out loud moments, but it is very clearly rooted in comedy of discomfort. A lot of the laughs come out of the sheer unease the audience feels with having to be trapped with these two couples. It's an area that Polanski hasn't worked in much, but I feel he does a good job opening up the world of the play enough to not make it feel too stagy.

Ultimately I think it's not as successful an adaptation as Doubt was, but it is a lovely companion piece (and you could squeeze them both in in under three hours).

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