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Non-Review Review: Carnage

Carnage is pretty much an excuse to watch four very skilled actors ripping chunks out of one another. What’s not to like?

This means Warhol!

Polanski’s adaptation of Le Dieu du Carnage (God of Carnage) is a fairly simple high-concept. It’s four people trapped inside a room together, as they bounce off one another. What starts as a fairly civil discussion between two couples devolves into a bunch of scathing innuendos and veiled accusations, and that’s before the Scotch comes out. There’s nothing more and nothing less to it. Over the course of the film, we see the inside of Penelope and Michael’s apartment, and the landing outside. Though Polanski may frame the movie with shots of the outside world, there really is no outside world. There’s those four people, and that small space. While Alan might admire the view that the apartment offers of the elevated train, trying to prompt his wife’s nausea, the movie’s world is perfectly self-contained. There is nothing outside those walls, as far as any of the characters and the movie might be concerned.

Of course, there is an external factor that brings the two couples together, but it’s a concession and a plot device. Alan and Nancy’s son hit Penelope and Michael’s son with a stick, and the two couples have gotten together to resolve their differences in a civilised fashion. That’s pretty much just an excuse to get the four characters together, and the movie opens as Alan and Nancy make their first attempt to leave. They make a second attempt later on, but the plot just keeps reeling them back in. Alan even makes it into the elevator at one point, but is pulled out by a cell phone conversation that is just his excuse to skip out on interacting with the other three people in the flat.

Do they Reilly think they can Waltz on in here?

The movie exists pretty much in a vacuum, if only because there’s no realistic way to believe that either Penelope and Michael or Alan and Nancy could survive as a couple. In fairness, Alan admits that he has a child from an earlier relationship, but he and Nancy have been together long enough to raise a son. The movie unfolds in something close to real time, as the two couples become increasingly petty and as the social occasion becomes increasingly uncomfortable. In an hour or so interacting with two relative strangers, both couples find the bedrock of their relationships shattered. It seems hard to believe that either couple coud have lasted years together if it only takes that long for their relationships to pretty much implode. It’s a concession, but it’s one worth making.

At its core, Carnage pretty much exists to allow four actors to have fan bouncing off one another, and the joy of the film comes from watching each of the four characters gradually shed their facades and the illusion of social nicety as the meeting grinds on. Given the movie is four people in an apartment, Polanski is content to take a back seat. He knows that it’s up to the four leads to effectively sell the film, so it’s fantastic that he’s brought together not only four incredibly skilled performers, but four who work so perfectly well together. This really is a film to savour for the performances, and I think that each of the four leads acquits themselves admirably.

Foster-ing a relationship...

I think Kate Winslet is probably the weakest of the bunch, bringing the shrill Nancy to life, but she’s still solid. Perhaps it’s the fact that Nancy never seems to have any character traits beyond “shallow”, which tends to be a fairly exclusive adjective to apply to a character. Again, this isn’t to suggest that Winslet is bad, just that she stands out less than her three co-stars, failing to really define Nancy beyond something of a shrill poser. Even when she attacks the other three characters, Nancy still feels slightly less characterised than the rest of the cast.

John C. Reilly is great, and I think he works so well because he’s one of those few actors who manages to balance comedy and drama well. I’m not talking about an attempt for a comedian to be taken seriously like Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, I’m more talking about an ability to find both within the same role. Here he’s the loudest of four, and perhaps the most overtly silly or hilarious, which is perfect casting. Reilly generally makes for the funniest guy in a drama (which made his turn in We Need to Talk About Kevinso perfectly aloof) and is often one of the better dramatic performers in a comedy, so the role of Michael fits him perfectly.

Keep your pants on...

However, it’s Jodie Foster and Christoph Waltz who steal the show. Since we are talking about four wonderful performers here, I should concede that the pair have the juicier roles, and the most direct confrontation between the four characters involved. Quite simply, it is a shame that Foster doesn’t appear more often. She’s always been one of the most wonderfully talented actresses of her generation, seemingly able to change her skin to blend in perfectly with the role. Even when the film itself was arguably disappointing, Foster was always worth watching. Here, she seems to relish the opportunity to perhaps go a bit louder than she might often allow herself, realising the comedy lies in the wonderfully overblown nature of the disagreement.

Waltz arguably has a similar talent for being the best things about the films he appears in, even if he’s a relative newcomer to the international movie scene. Despite quite a few duds since making a lasting first impression to international audiences in Inglourious Basterds, Waltz is always a joy to watch, and that’s certainly the case as Alan. Ever the shrewd lawyer (“attorney”), he’s a character who exists to generate tension, knowing just what buttons to push and pushing them for his own sadistic pleasure. Indeed, Waltz plays Alan as something of an overgrown bully poking the other characters with a stick and laughing at what follows.

There's a lot on the line...

It’s the conflict between Penelope and Alan where the grown-ups act most like children, as the writer and lawyer argue over semantics, words and phrases, needling one another as they try to subtly colour the events involving their children. It’s hilarious that Alan takes such joy in provoking Penelope – if only because he freely (and repeatedly) concedes that his son is “a maniac.” Of course, the entire film portrays the adults as nothing more than overgrown children, from Michael’s seemingly bold (yet implicitly cowardly) rejection of familial love through to way that the camp eventually splits into “boys versus girls.”

Carnage is an excuse to watch four wonderful, fully grown actors get a chance to act like squabbling children. It’s nothing more, it’s nothing less. It’s light, but that’s entirely the point. I really enjoyed it, more than I’ve enjoyed a Polanski film in quite some time.

12 Responses

  1. I thought the ending was very weak and disappointing. The whole movie was great, especially Winslet and Foster and Waltz was amazingly funny. Desplat music was very good – that opening scene would miss so much without it. Great review Darren.

    • I kinda liked the ending, if only because it didn’t over-extend itself. It seemed like it was saying “this is a nice place to leave this conversation”, which would have been a bit of a cop-out if it had been more serious.

  2. I really didn’t enjoy this one as all. I couldn’t connect to the characters and felt the whole thing to be very unrealistic because of it. It was way too long for my liking as well. Can’t love them all 😉

  3. I like this one a great deal, and as you say it’s light but I think that the point is to show how light and frothy we adults can be. The most interesting thing about reading reviews of Carnage is watching how different people respond to the quartet. For me it’s Winslet>Waltz>Reilly>Foster.

    • Interesting. I’d swap the first and last, and then you’d have it for me. I don’t know, I just though Winslet had the weakest character (or the most thinly-drawn). But Waltz was great, wasn’t he. It’s amazing how he’s done so consistantly well since Inglourious Basterds, eh? I mean, some of the movies suck, but he’s always good.

    • I happen to share Andrew K’s ranking of the quartet.

      • If we all agreed it would be boring! I think a large part of it will come down to the viewer, but I think thy’re all strong enough to make a four-hander work despite the fact that it feels a little awkwardly plotted at times. (“Why are we still here!” I think kate’s character yells at one point, and there’s no real reason they should be, just like the film lack an ending.) It’s a film to see to see the four actors interacting, and I think all four are strong enough to justify it.

  4. Not sure if I’ll bother with this one, I respect the quality and talent on display but something about the story leaves me cold. Enjoyed your little caption comments and it’s interesting to hear you say your enjoyed a Polanski film. I’m generally of the impression that a Polanski film is to be appreciated but not enjoyed, necessarily. Maybe I will see this after all. Thanks Darren!

    • Yep, I felt that way about a lot of Polanski films of late too, which is why this was such a breath of fresh air. It’s kinda like what Woody Allen did with Midnight in Paris – there’s not necessarily a lot of substance, but that’s the point. It’s meant to be light and fun and easy to digest.

  5. ‘Light and fun and easy to digest’… it was, I’m just glad I waited until AFTER the film to have my lunch. Watching Kate Winslet barf isn’t really my idea of an appetiser. It’s fun to watch good actors get to work on a decent script.

    • Yep, I did think it was a bit much, but it worked as a catalyst for the rest of the film though. Saw it again on Friday. Really liked it.

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