Mark Reviews Movies

Carnage (2011)

CARNAGE (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 1:20

Release Date: 12/16/11 (limited); 1/13/12 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 12, 2012

The key is the rationale for why a group of four people who hate each other would stay cooped up together in an enclosed space for an extended period of time. The setup has been done before, whether for absurdist reasons (e.g., Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel) or existential exploration (e.g., Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit), and Carnage, based on the play The God of Carnage by co-screenwriter Yasmina Reza, uses the gimmick as a way to observe how people become trapped by adherence to social mores—the fear of seeming rude or, perhaps, the need to be polite. There is a difference, after all.

It goes completely against what all of them want at the moment—to be finished with these others, these strangers, who seem to exist only to annoy their own worldview—but, when a conversation goes sour, one must atone, at least for the sake of appearances. When someone offers another person a slice of homemade strudel, that person must, of course, accept.

Most of the action occurs inside the New York City apartment of a well-to-do married couple, save for a few times when, after the conversation gets heated, it moves to the hallway, where, say, a discussion about setting up a later meeting or the barking of a dog or a nosy neighbor poking his head through his doorway reminds them that they are being impolite. The elevator arrives, and, as the one character who openly expresses and displays that he could not care less about their conversation looks back with longing, they all scurry back into that damned apartment to have another round of dialogue. They do so because they must.

The conversation revolves, for the most part, around a fight between two kids in a park that plays out in the background of the film's opening credits. It's a static shot, impassive and at a distance, that watches as the two boys argue until one picks up a stick and hits the other in the face. The parents of the boy who is struck are Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly). She's a writer; the book she is currently writing is about the strife in Darfur. He is a plumbing wholesaler, who, when asked about how his son is doing after the fight, offers a gem of unintentionally excessive language: "They want to give the tooth a chance."

The parents of the boy who hit the Longstreets' son are Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz). She manages her husband's wealth. He's a lawyer with a cell phone seemingly sewn to his hand. While Penelope writes up an affidavit about the incident, Alan is uncertain about the use of the word "armed." She happily changes it.

Thus begins a dance of proper etiquette. Alan has a pressing issue with a pharmaceutical company he represents, but Nancy simply cannot turn down the Longstreets offer to stay a while longer for strudel and coffee. The conversation starts out apologetic and understanding. Surely the Cowans' son made a mistake and feels bad about it, Michael insists; Penelope wants to make certain. "Has he said anything about it," she pushes the Cowans. No, Nancy responds; he's been quiet. Then how could they possibly know that he's sorry for "disfiguring" her son, Penelope wonders aloud.

The screenplay by Reza and director Roman Polanski (whose staging, with the help of cinematographer Pawel Edelman and editor Hervé de Luze, produces a seamless rhythm of words and movement within the limited space) is a game of language—how words and phrases change according to which character says them and in what context—as the two parties vie for the right to be right, breaking ranks as the extended conversation deteriorates into a trivial battle of petty egos. Each member of the quartet begins to load ammunition from what the others say.

When Michael tells his guests the story of how he left his daughter's pet hamster in the street the night before, it's a point of minor contention with Nancy, but later, as the talk continues to get nowhere, she announces out of the blue that she believes Michael to be a murderer. Alan and Michael stare each other down after the latter questions how Alan can have a job that aids a company that might be harming people, and, in a deviously mocking tone, Alan fires back with unhindered contempt, "What's a normal job?" At another point, Alan calls his son a "monster," to which his wife gives a quick expression of disapproval, but when Penelope simply says that Alan called Nancy's son a monster, she roars with condemnation.

Certainly, the convention that this lengthy debate persists as long as it does pushes credibility, but as it progresses (or, better, regresses), it becomes less about civility and more about having the last, meaningless—but satisfying—word. There's enough absurdity within the events—such as when Nancy has a violent bout of food poisoning leaving Penelope to fret over a rare art book—to remind us that the device has a point, and if some of the transitional dialogue is a bit too precise, the actors (All are fine, though Waltz stands out individually) have a natural rapport the jolt promptly dissipates (though the less said about the film's throwaway final shot, the better).

Ultimately, the film boils down to a study of arrogance—how people presume to know what's best for others. Carnage is intelligent and quite funny—sometimes savagely so.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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