It really doesn’t matter what you think of Roman Polanski. Whether you dislike him, his behavior, or his politics, nothing can really detract from the fact that he can make a damn good film. I understand some refuse to see his films because they don’t want to contribute further to his career in a positive manner, which I understand. Anyone with a true appreciation for the medium of film as a means of artistic expression has to admit the man knows what he’s doing when he directs a motion picture.
His latest film, Carnage, based on the play The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, is a good old fashioned festival of uncomfortable preening, and the result is a dark delight to enjoy. Centering on the parents of two children, Zachary (as parented by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) and Ethan (parented by John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) who meet after Zachary hits Ethan with a stick, causing some facial damage. The parents meet to hash things out, as adults, partly to prove to their children how to be grown up about conflict, and partly to prove to themselves that they can be the better people.
When it becomes a contest of who can out-do the other, they revert to behavior they tried to avoid, as Ethan’s mom said “Sometimes the adults end up worse than the kids”, which of course is foreshadowing for when the parents do break down into petty squabbles, not only with the other couple, but with each other as well.
As the afternoon toils on and deteriorates into a blame-fest by two supremely unhappy couples, the film goes into full on comedy mode, with each scene getting worse as we go. When Alan (Waltz) won’t get off his cell phone because of an important case at his law firm, not only does his wife Nancy (Winslet) start to lose his mind, but he begins to drive Penelope (Foster) crazy as well. He finds an unlikely ally in Michael (Reilly) who sympathizes with the plight of a man in an unhappy marriage.
As they switch sides, drink, and point the finger at one another (among other zany antics that are played perfectly straight) the one thing that becomes increasingly clear is that the actions and behaviors of their children are directly affected by the way their parents interact with each other on a daily basis, and with these two groups, typically it is expected that one will be some definition of “normal”, but in this case, they’re equally insane in their own rigid ways, and that’s what they all come to eventually realize.
As I mentioned before, this is the adaptation of a play, and on that end, you can see how it was adapted into a film. There is one main location, the apartment of the Longstreets (Reilly and Foster), and really, the only characters that have any screen time are the two sets of parents. However, Polanski takes these theatrical conventions and molds them nicely into his own film making style, using the camera to influence the audience in ways that a playwright cannot. He has taken the subjectivity out of the presentation of the piece, and I think for a tale as realistic, yet still farcical, as this one, the way the camera makes choices for the audience is a joy to watch. Of course Reilly has established himself as one of the better comedy actors of his generation in recent years, so it’s no surprise when you’re cracking up at the dry humor in his portrayal of Michael. Waltz is a recent introduction for most American audiences, but here he proves his comedic chops are as finely tuned as his dramatic skills for which he won an Oscar. Winslet and Foster both play different sides of the same neurotic New York mother, one the PC, bleeding heart liberal, the other a faux sensitive broker, but both women are as stubborn as they could possibly be.
A very New York story, Carnage is funny not because it has the intent to be a comedy. Rather, it’s hilarious because it so believably captures the banality and pettiness of human interactions with great glee. The moments between, the awkward points in a life are often glossed over, especially in film, because of the fear of making the audience squirm. Carnage will have you squirming with delight at the masked vulgarity of the characters involved, and the real world correlations they will lead you to make. Polanski has done it again, crafting an entertaining farce in a realistic setting, proving yet again that no matter what you think of him personally, he can make one hell of a film.