Who are none other than John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster, whose 11-year-old son was slugged in a playground by the son of Kate Winslet and Christopher Waltz. We start out in Reilly and Foster’s Brooklyn apartment with an overly-cordial and cozy (mmm), above-the-fray march toward making amends despite the victim’s damaged teeth and pride. Carnage really gets going once the couples soon stray, revealing a thicket of ruthless, antisocial envy, soul-baring bickering, and class animosity (the Walter’s are more snooty/upper middle… Just saying….). Soon the beneath-the-surface tensions start out “Couple vs Couple” in a battle that is more dramatic than Reel Steal (Didn’t expect that reference did you?) The fight eventually turn to “Spouse vs Spouse” and then “Men vs Women.”
Did I mention this flick is often hilarious?
Filmed by Roman Polanski from the Yasmina Riza French play turned into a Tony-award-winning Broadway play, Carnage is (despite its viciousness–no, in large part because of it) worth the bother.
Carnage is a layercake of emotions and pet peeves with a sweet outer portion gradually and enticingly peeled off to give way to an increasingly menacing sour core. The characters dramatic turnaround from polite to poisonous is brilliantly filmed by Polanski in portraying their marital discord (always hard to fathom from the outside) by getting inside their souls. He’s up to the challenge in filming a play that’s basically confined to one set. His camera’s point of view always seems to know just where to go for maximum effect–no small feat as opposed to an audience at a theatrical piece free to choose where to focus attention.
Yet it’s the acting in Carnage that shines. The actors make it easy to imagine these parents responding the way they do, despite their relatively limited personas. There’s a universality to them despite their specific identifiers as an art-collecting writer of a book about Darfur (Foster), a liberal poser with a blue-collar heart (Reilly), an attorney constantly on his cellphone (Waltz), and an inciting nervous Nelly (Winslet).
Those of us who haven’t seen the play can only wonder how much better Marcia Gay Harden was in the Foster role of Penelope on Broadway, or, heavens, the always superb Isabella Huppert in the French premier. Yet while the overly shrill Foster may comparatively lag the proceedings somewhat, it’s hard to imagine a better Alan (Jeff Daniels on Broadway) than Waltz, who virtually steals this film. Ditto Reilly’s Mike (James Gandolfini) or Winslet’s Nancy (Hope Davis). Nothing here on the order of the criminal casting of Gwyneth Paltrow in the film version of Proof instead of the remarkable Tony-award-winning Mary Louise Parker.
Polanski, on the heels of the savvy The Ghost Writer, has taken a bullying incident among kids as a catalyst for an admirably lean (only 80 minutes! That’s less than two episodes of Boardwalk Empire!) exploration of ostensibly normal marriages gone bona-fide exposed, dragging us through their stuff where we can’t look away no matter how ugly things get. The actors may be a superb string quartet but an embarrassed and amused Roman lurks in the background, ever the neutral observer.
8 Virginia Woolfs (out of 10)