Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Starring: Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Christophe Waltz
By Alan Bacchus
Recalling the power of the fiery words of the four adults in Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Carnage, the latest Roman Polanski film, based on the stage play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, has the same kind of effect. In this film Polanski assembles two couples bickering about the restitution deserved when one child assaults the other child in a play yard spat. Carnage’s approach is more suitable and satirical than Wolf, keenly skewering the conservative elite, liberal wonkheads and in general the ineffectiveness of civilized dispute resolution – intellectual nihilism at its best.
Jodie Foster is a wound-up tight liberal writer/librarian harbouring strong feelings of inadequacy about her weak writing career. John C. Reilly, her husband, is a salt of the earth bathroom fixture salesman, partly emasculated by his current domestic status as equal caregiver to his son. Together they have a son, whom we never see, but whom was the victim of a blow from another boy in the school yard, which has left him with some facial lacerations and in need of dental work. Kate Winslet is a lawyer in a doomed marriage with a workaholic investment banker, Christophe Waltz, who spends most of his time on his Blackberry. They are the parents of the other boy committed the assault.
The film opens with the negotiation process of the formal apology letter, nitpicking every word in a passive aggressive way to exert their authority over the other. When it's time to leave, Alan and Nancy (Waltz/Winslet) can’t seem to get out of the door, or get in the elevator without being sucked back into their argument. Michael and Penelope (Reilly/Foster), likewise, just can’t let go of the damage inflicted upon their son. The rest of the day is spent in a complex and evolving dialogue between the four boobs, fueled by scotch. Their unspoken opinions of each other and themselves devolve the get-together into a satirical spat for the ages.
Polanski is certainly at home working in a cramped apartment, deftly moving his camera from character to character and around the room while escalating tension before spilling over into its angered catharsis. The film is scripted by Reza and Polanski, who are very careful not to assign full culpability to any of the characters. Foster is delightfully grating as a ball of neuroses, the turning point represented by her attachment to an art book coffee table decoration that gets puked on by Kate Winslet. Initially, Reilly appears to be the mediator but then reveals his former life as a bully, not unlike his son, who revelled in his school yard status and quiet envy of Waltz's alpha male persona. Waltz’s droll reactions to all the shenanigans makes him the audience’s point of view into the absurdity, always maintaining his composure with a straight face, but still annoyingly crass and self-absorbed. Winslet is perhaps the most normal of the bunch, but once the scotch starts flowing she unleashes her own form of verbal vengeance on Michael, Penelope and her husband, Alan.
The title of the film refers to the God of Carnage, discussed by the characters, which serves as a mythological metaphor for the effectiveness of simple school yard justice versus the inane dance of manners. For fear of indulging in too much intellectual hyperbole, Reza brilliantly has Kate Winslet puke over Penelope’s coffee table, a ridiculous absurdist act that gleefully pays homage to the surrealist king, Luis Bunuel. But Carnage stays on the side of realism. We can't help but see ourselves in each of these characters, who make the discussion thoroughly engaging, hilarious and powerful.