Carnage, in all its human forms, is truly the name of the game from start to finish in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the French stage play by Yasmina Reza. And reminding us all what a fun game it can be—at least when witnessed in other peoples’ lives—Reza’s script opens on the Brooklyn Bridge playground, where a scuffle breaks out amongst a “gang” of grungy, tough looking fourth-grade boys. The scene climaxes when young Zachary Cowen whacks (that is, with a stick) his fellow gangster Ethan Longstreet.
Though the film’s physical violence stops there, we discover that Carnage’s grown-ups have merely developed a colder, subtler, and much more vicious form of combat in a petty blame-game that escalates monstrously between the two boys’ parents for the remainder of the film.
By the final scenes, the Longstreets’ stuffy Brooklyn high-rise, where both couples had originally met to resolve the whole thing politely, is like a seething volcano in the middle of the city, where any hints of basic empathy, faint as they were from the start, are lost in one potentially devastating, sublimely vulgar, and consistently funny epic verbal brawl where it’s every ego for itself.
With physical evidence on their side (a couple of lost teeth), Ethan’s parents Penelope and Michael Longstreet, portrayed by Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, can’t help but assert, quietly at first, that their son is the undisputed victim of the attack. But Zachary’s parents Nancy and Alan Cowen, played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, remind their opponents that Ethan had verbally assaulted Zachary; they even admit to their own son’s juvenile barbarity. But here in Carnage’s ill-moderated world, you can either accept this as a small act of redemption, or, in the spirit of the film, accuse the Cowens of shameless cynicism, parading their honesty as parents just to one-up the Longstreets.
Now, to sum up the film’s essence, imagine Polanski leaning in from his director’s chair with a creepy smile on his face to ask you, which interpretation is more fun?
Carnage is shot almost exclusively inside the apartment and without music, preserving the story’s claustrophobic tension. The original version of the play (titled in French “The God of Carnage”) is set in Paris, but when Reza adapted it for Broadway in 2009 she changed the setting to Brooklyn. Though it may seem a simple accommodation for American audiences, Reza was rather brilliant in choosing New York City, whose jungle atmosphere and bipolar marriage of heightened sophistication and deep-seated grime suits our four squabbling parents rather well.
Just take Penelope, the tightwad book store clerk and insufferable “Save Darfur” champion who rushes to clean the vomit from her out-of-print art books before even thinking to assist Nancy, who gets sick from eating Penelope’s dreadful yet harshly defended apple-pear cobbler. Still Nancy, made vulnerable and level headed by Kate Winslet’s subdued performance, might just as easily have become nauseas from Penelope’s cold, incessant judgment of her more lax approach to parenting.
Penelope is certainly made the easiest character to despise, and the marvelous Jodie Foster moves, speaks, and breathes with such repressed intensity it chills you, with her outraged face always pulled back tight as if by painful sutures behind her head.
We want to applaud when she’s jeered by her own husband, a phony slob who ironically (though, given the comedic talent of John C. Reilly, not surprisingly) is the film’s most likeable character. But the film itself is never cruel to its characters, and we’re left with a rather disturbing question: in an “enlightened” society, how does Penelope, the only character with any sort of moral compass, so easily become the bad guy?
Penelope’s downfall lies in a refusal to compromise—something Reza must realize Americans are particularly acquainted with—and Zachary’s father Alan is her arch nemesis, a brazenly self-centered and amoral lawyer who represents shady pharmaceutical companies.
Like in his famed role as the “Jew Hunter” from Inglorious Basterds, only without the actual fangs, Christoph Waltz is sniveling, sadistic, and perfectly charming as he struts off mid-conversation to grumble into his infernally buzzing cell phone, and comfortable enough in his arrogance that he may as well be walking about in nothing but underwear. Where the ever-uncomfortable Penelope either genuinely or from fear of damnation sees the human race as a morally obligated species, Alan openly revels in the lewd, apathetic, and hostile realm in which the parents’ meeting eventually immerses itself—much to our satisfaction, too. So what’s so dangerous about letting our own dark sides loose? My guess is that they’re not quite as fun or attractive as the ones Polanski and Reza have brought to the screen.
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