27 Dec

Title: Carnage
Year: 2011
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski and Yasmine Reza, based on the play by Ms. Reza
Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz
MPAA Rating: R, language
Runtime: 79 min
IMDb Rating: 7.7
Rotten Tomatoes: 67%
Metacritic: 57


When I first heard there was an adaptation of Yasmine Reza’s play God of Carnage in the works, set to be directed by Roman Polanski and with a cast of Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly, I was pretty much blown away, I expected a truly impeccable film to come out from that. After all, the play won the Tony for Best Play in 2009 (when the cast of the original Broadway production was Marcia Gay Harden, who won a Tony herself, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini and Jeff Daniels), and was just super critically lauded. And the people that came on board to make it a film were all insanely talented, all of them except John C. Reilly being Oscar winners, and Mr. Reilly himself being a past nominee and one of the most versatile actors working today for my money, being able to nail both dramatic and comedic roles, which would be key for a film like this.

And yet, as amazing as the talent assembled and source material were, Carnage just didn’t soar to the heights I expected and wanted it to. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the direction by Mr. Polanski is incredibly assured in the making of a film that centers on the interactions of just four people, and all four of these actors are incredible, Ms. Winslet and Ms. Foster especially, but it just doesn’t get through, the story isn’t as gripping as it probably was on stage, losing quite a lot of its funnybone and sheer impact, and even though its well-made and well-acted, I started wishing that maybe this director and actors would have teamed up in another, better project.

I still liked it quite a lot, and watching Mr. Polanski make a film that’s this short, just eighty minutes long, working at such a fast pace with a limited amount of actors in a limited space, is bound to deliver the goods. It’s just that the goods it delivers aren’t exactly consistent, the film starts off brilliantly, the first half hour or so is truly impeccable, but then it kind of falters a bit and goes off the rails by the end. But I think we should focus more on the positive side of things, like how fun it is seeing someone like Roman Polanski staying true to the limitations provided by a play as far as time and space goes, spending eighty minutes in an apartment in Brooklyn where two couples are spending an evening of bickering. Most films would have tried to expand the time, would have tried to get the characters the play establishes onto other locations that the broader field of films allow in comparison to the stage. But Roman Polanski shows confidence in making a faithful adaptation of the material he got, writing the script himself alongside Ms. Reza.

The play is about the human condition, an exploration of what happens when those required social niceties to keep society running smoothly come crumbling down and the nastier side of us is allowed to be seen. Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet play one couple, while Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play the other one, and it’s from them, two couples of middle-aged, white people, that we get to see what happens when the walls of politeness come down. What makes them come down is a schoolyard incident between both of their sons, which makes the two couples come together to talk it over, and evolves into a full-on carnage, like the title suggests, every one of them showing what’s so wrong with them and, maybe, with some of us too.

If spending time with these two couples was claustrophobic on stage, forcing you to see these ugly things, though presented to you in quite a funny way, then it’s even more so in film. As not only are you stuck in one apartment, which was really neatly designed by Dean Tavoularis the seventy-nine year-old production designer who worked on all three The Godfather films as well as Apocalypse Now, but you also have the addition of close-ups on the faces of these people to amp up the sense of claustrophobia, courtesy of cinematographer Pawel Edelman, an Oscar-nominee for his work on Mr. Polanski’s The Pianist. That sort of style works well to milk to these characters obsessions with appearances and provide a really bleak comedy that Mr. Polanski and his cast feel at home in.

Penelope and Michael, the characters of Ms. Foster and Mr. Reilly host this meeting, the parents of the injured boy. She’s tightly-wound, over-parenting her son; he seems kind of easy-going, but also rather dumb in comparison to the very bright Penelope, which of course works all that much better when you have the cerebral Ms. Foster and Mr. Reilly who’s played Dale Doback. The parents of the guy that did the beating are a more refined couple, Alan and Nancy, he a successful lawyer; she an investment broker. They obviously get together because, as they say, they’re all grown-ups, rational people, so they meet together happily, ready to quickly resolve a silly little dispute their kids had because, well, because they’re kids. Not so fast.

Things quickly start heating up, and faults of each of them start coming to the surface, faults of their marriage, each of them bubbling up because of the behavior they, the grown-ups, start exhibiting. Mr. Waltz is good at playing Alan, a guy who looks bored throughout and can’t even pretend to care about what his son did, more occupied with a business transaction that has him picking up the phone at the worst of times without care about what’s transpiring in the apartment. The first bits of Carnage work truly well, as the tension starts building up, differences of class and character start superimposing themselves between these four people who realize they just can’t stand each other. The process of watching those niceties go out the window is terrific fun, as the conversation about their kids turns into one about so many other things, but as soon as the process is done with and the third act kicks in with the niceties all gone and everyone involved, especially Mr. Foster, amping up their energy by a notch or two, it just got too messy for me to enjoy just as much, as well-acted a craziness as it may have been.

Grade: B+


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