Carnage (2011)

Carnage (2011) – As those who know me personally are probably aware, I am a theatre major. But to those who know me and those who don’t, I am a gigantic film geek (as evidenced by, you know, this whole site). So stage-to-screen adaptations intrigue me. Carnage, based on Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, contains four characters in one location for [almost] the entirety of the film. With a premise like that, the film has the dangerous potential to feel way too stagey. Plays are plays and movie are movies and while they have many similarities they each have a distinct feel. Movies that feel too much like filmed plays don’t work very well (in my humble opinion). Carnage has an ace up its sleeve though in director Roman Polanski. Think what you will about the man as a human being, but he made Chinatown, The Pianist, and Knife in the Water. The man knows cinema.

Carnage begins with a wordless scene during the credits in which a group of children are inaudibly arguing about something until one of the kids hits another with a stick. The rest of the movie (save for a coda best left unspoiled) is set in the apartment of the injured child’s family. Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) are meeting with Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), the parents of the aggressor. Penelope clearly wants to reach a civilized understanding about the situation, Nancy wants to smooth things over, Michael wants to keep everything amiable, and Alan would clearly rather be anywhere else (exemplified in the way he keeps answering his cell phone). The veneer of pleasantry doesn’t last very long and the bitter attacks these damaged people launch at each other are biting and often hilarious. Alliances form and are almost immediately dissolved. At times it is Longstreets vs. Cowans, men vs. women, or most often everybody just trying to justify their own actions and opinions.

This is a comedy of discomfort, and as I said before a biting one. All four actors are excellent in their roles. Most of the characters reveal themselves to be different than they initially presented themselves. Some people have problems with films in which there are no “likable” characters. Carnage is not a film for those people. It is a film of condescending elitists and callous misanthropes. After any illusion of tact has been eliminated from the conversation, these people are out to destroy each other. Polanski’s direction manages to keep the film from ever feeling stagnant, even though it is almost entirely in the apartment. It never feels like a filmed play but like a very talky film. The comedy is dark but I laughed out loud many times during the film. Four great performances and a deftly written script make Carnage one definitely worth checking out.

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