CARNAGE Review

As far as ensemble pieces go it always seems tougher than expected to keep the wide range of characters in close relation to one another. I always found this funny because people seem to respond to these big ensemble casts especially when each role is filled with someone really famous. The thrill being to see all these famous people work side by side but rarely does that ever turn out to be the case. While the ensemble is cut to four players here each role is filled by an actor or actress that could bring more characterization and heart to a role than the entire roster of "New Year's Eve" (No, I haven't seen it but I feel confident in saying that). The cast of "Carnage" may not all be considered super famous but they are certainly nothing short of credible and with Roman Polanski at the helm what we have here is a delicious dissection of society that exposes the types of people we have become and the types of people we have to deal with. What starts out as a polite discussion that is itself an attempt to resolve an issue maturely between two sets of parents, one played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz with the other by Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, the conversation quickly shifts from the main objective and the way it is handled to each couple analyzing one another and what each statement they make means and soon enough it turns into married couples doing the same thing to one another and eventually a battle of the sexes.

The Longsteets (left) and teh Cowans (right) decide how to
best describe their predicament on paper.
The initial meeting is set up by The Longstreets (Reilly and Foster) who are immediately recognized as the more progressive parents. Foster perfecting her way of making everything she says sound academic and more important and groundbreaking than anything you could even think. Reilly on the other hand feels slightly miscast for the first half of the film before exploding into blurts of logic that satisfy his own outlook on life. Foster and Reilly are mismatched from the get go and though it may be jarring for a bit it only seems to make more sense as the story moves along. In many ways what Polanski has done is to take the roles he was given seeing as the film is based on Yasmina Reza's Broadway hit "God of Carnage", and filled them with actors who we already have pre-conceived notions of from their previous work. He uses these reputations in force once the conflict of the movie moves from the two couples children to the couples themselves. Having Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz handle the Cowans, a more type A couple with a more traditional outlook on parenting. In saying traditional I mean that since their child hurt the Longstreets on a playground and though they find it a bit strange to be invited over to try and pacify the situation they take it as a sign of promise and hopes that this will blow over with no real harm done. The Longstreets are the kind of people though that outwardly try to look as if nothing is wrong when behind closed doors they seem to have the most turmoil. In that case the Longstreets prove to be the more interesting and dynamic of the pairs while Winslet seems to be constantly searching for a particular characteristic to make her character stand out and Waltz just steals the whole show with an effortless air of snark throughout the entire process.

Alan (Christoph Waltz) ad Nancy (Kate Winslet) become
somewhat disgusted by the Longsteets.
When the film opened with the Cowans leaving the comfortable and classy Brooklyn apartment of the Longstreets I had to wonder how they would continue to have the self-conscious, society mocking conversations for another hour and and fifteen minutes. Clearly this type of set up works on a Broadway stage and can play out quite simply with the level of sharp written dialogue we have here, but this no doubt presented a filmmaker with some issues. In order to keep the audience engaged in four people sitting around talking without that extra dimension of seeing it live, Polanski focuses more on the individual ticks of each individual. The one thin film can offer that stage can't is to show the little things. That is where the film really succeeds. Sure, the dialogue is great and the observations are all golden and ring true as we think of people we know like that when a certain description or trait is tossed out, but it is when the camera stays focused on a face (mainly Foster's) that we see past the witty outer layer and into the person that is really in this situation. We acknowledge why they are here and what brought them to this point where they are ready to abandon all civility and discover who they really are, or really want to be, as a human being. The fact that all of the action in "Carnage" is confined to one location and as we watch these four very different people duke it out with verbal insights and insults makes the whole experience feel even more personal and claustrophobic.

Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly)
begin to reconsider inviting their guests over.
In the end what we realize is how pointless it all seems to be. "Carnage" is an actors film that groups four talented people with a veteran director who knows the ropes. I have never been a huge Polanski follower and know that as a fan of cinema I should have, by now, seen "Chinatown". I will get around to it, but from what I have seen it is evident that he is just as interested in how his characters tell the story as he is in how he tells it. It almost seems that he is inspired by the actors and how they choose to portray a character that sets a tone and a style for his films. His muse here clearly seems to be Foster as she is the one who anchors this entire predicament, it is her Penelope through which we strive for a goal and though Polanski could have just as easily set his film up by watching another actor play that role on stage he took Foster's whole demeanor and slowly introduces us to the rest of the people around her giving us her impression of them. What this does is set up what we take away from the film, it exposes that theme in a very subtle but inescapable way. The idea of how there will always be a different way to see things and that some other person might gain something from which you took nothing. There is no purpose in fighting because no matter how convincing the argument we each have our own interpretation. Polanski paints his point with parental differences but the theories go much further.