Carnage (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

In the opening sequence of “Carnage,” directed by Roman Polanski, we observed a group of kids interacting at a park. As one kid walked away from a group, obviously upset, the leader of the group followed. The former kid turned around suddenly and smacked the latter in the face with a long stick. The one who used the weapon was Zachary and the one who ended up on the ground was Ethan. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), Ethan’s parents, invited Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), Zachary’s parents, in their home to discuss, in a calm and friendly way, the issue and what should be done next. Initially, everyone was as serene as a kettle of full of water recently put on a stove to boil. But as the parents spent more time together, they began to turn against one another until the issues they began to discuss were no longer related to the conflict between their children. Based on a play called “Le Dieu du carnage” by Yasmina Reza, for a film packed with four excellent and versatile comedic and dramatic actors, it ended up only slightly comedic and barely dramatic. While nuance in the acting was present, I felt as though there was nothing underneath the surface emotions. Having an experience with working with kids and dealing with equally difficult parents, I can vouch that these people were caricatures. Perhaps they were supposed to be, fine, but it seemed as though Polanski neglected to provide his audience multiple angles of each character so that we would be forced to recognize our parents, or even ourselves, in them. While parents may be as self-centered and sensitive as their children, not for one second did I believe that an adult, after being insulted several times, directly and indirectly, would decide not to flee the situation as quickly as possible. Penelope delivered sententious speeches about how much she loved the history of Africa and how she claimed to understand Africa’s suffering. Nancy felt very ill. Michael kept making jokes in order to palliate the increasing unhappiness. Alan was programmed to pick up his cell phone every time it rang. Didn’t it occur to any of them that it just wasn’t worth it? If I’m talking to someone and it’s obvious that my words are going in one ear and out the other, I’ll feel compelled to no longer speak. I’m not going to waste my time trying to get through to someone who’s too stubborn to consider what I have to say. Deep down, Penelope and Michael felt like Nancy and Alan just didn’t care that their child picked up a weapon and struck another person. The very act had a lot of social, emotional, and psychological implications yet none of them were explored. I argue that if they had been explored, the last shot would have been more powerful. Because the screenplay was adamant in remaining loyal the source material, the movie became asphyxiated by contrivances; I found it difficult to engage with it in a meaningful way. Most plays, like movies, are successful because they make the audiences feel something. Since my emotions remained rather neutral, except for a few snickers here and there, I felt the material did not translate to the big screen. What special quality did this picture have that the play did not? The yelling, screaming, and bickering were aimed, I think, to distract us from its insipidity.

10 replies »

    • If you like any one (or more) of the four actors, there’s a reason to see the movie. There’s no doubt that each had a defining moment. However, execution of the movie left much more to be desired. It just wasn’t as funny or biting as it should have been. When the end finally came, I thought, “That’s it?”

  1. Franz,

    It’s hard for me to see this film as something other than, or more than, a fairly quickly-forgotten satire. The jokes were sometimes funny, sometimes not, but I never felt like it aimed for character depth, and therefore shouldn’t be judged by that standard. That said, I think it would have benefited both from some dramatic depth and from some less-obvious satirical points (particularly with regards to the Jodie Foster character and her Africa hypocrisy.)

    I have to admit I laughed the hardest by the lowest-hanging fruit, namely the running cellphone gag with Christoph Waltz. I just think he is inherently funny, no matter what he’s supposed to be doing, and here, thankfully, it was intentional. I greatly enjoyed him in the otherwise godawful Water for Elephants last year as well, if only because he gave it his 100%, even in scenes that were probably intended as sincere and tender and/or menacing on the script page. He was all Hans Landa, all the time, and blew R-Patz out of the water at every turn.

    Here, I think Winslet delivered the best performance on the whole, while I tired somewhat over the course of the film’s very brief running time of both Foster and Reilly. It feels like Reilly, with his rapid mood swings, is starting to play some variation of every character he has played up until now. I won’t say I didn’t enjoyed the film for its laughs while it lasted, but until you brought it to my attention, I can’t I’d thought much about it since I was it at a festival screening last October.

    • Oh, my god, the cell phone thing drove me nuts! I was one of those people who found it more annoying than funny. OK, the first two calls were somewhat amusing but by the third, I began to wonder, “What is going on here? Can this movie strive to do more than a phone call?” It just went on and on and on. At least in my culture (or maybe just my family), such a thing would not be tolerated… even with strangers.

      Hmm, I think we’ll have to disagree that the picture did not aim for and therefore should not be judged upon character depth. I think it did through conversations between the two warring parents (as a team), when the parents began to identify with the same sex, as well as the scenes where the husband and wife were left on their own. A lot can be said about our own character from the way we talk to people and what we say about them. Unfortunately, the characters kept talking about the same thing, only with different words.

      I agree with you about Winslet’s performance–even with a that very memorable physical humor. That came out of nowhere! I was like, “Did that really happen?” It did. Another reason to get out of the apartment!

      • Franz,

        let me backtrack a little. As you point out, there were moments when the movie probably aimed for depth, but it was too broad-brushed to work as anything other than a variation is the inch-deep satire of other scenes, at least for me. But, as you say, that doesn’t mean the attempts weren’t there. I concede that :)

        I can see why the cellphone thing became annoying for you, but I think Christoph Waltz’ comic timing can survive anything! I want to see him in a Woody Allen movie, for some reason. Maybe, if on his European tour – he’s soon premiering a Rome movie, and there was Midnight in Paris, of course – he comes around to Vienna at some point, Waltz could have a star turn?

        Did you see the new trailer? I’m torn at best, but it has Jesse Eisenberg, whom I love in more ways than one, as you know, so I can’t help but be a little excited. And an Allen movie should be a match made in heaven for him, at least on paper, if Allen hadn’t been so infuriatingly uneven.

    • I actually haven’t heard of the movie until you brought it up, so thanks! Hmm, I //want// to be excited for the movie from watching the trailer because I really love Gerwig, she’s so effortless when it comes to acting natural, among other actors, but I share your sentiment. I’m also torn. On one hand, I have this strange fascination with Allen’s movies where people with different quirks meet and nothing much really happens. On the other hand, the trailer reminded me of… “Scoop.” =X

      I suspect you’ll catch it in theaters anyway because of Jesse Eisenberg. lol

      • Franz,

        of course I will! On a sidenote, I saw 30 Miniutes or Less yesterday, a movie I’d had very low expectations for. From the premise and the trailer, it looked like something Michael Cera turned down (and that’s not a compliment, although I love him when he’s good – Juno, Arrested Development, Superbad), but I was very pleasantly surprised. I found it to be consistently funny, and even the Danny McBride supporting character and his companion worked for me (I was initially skeptical).

        And yes, I thougt Jesse was sexy. Not just physically – it’s at this point I lose most people, probably including you – but also his personality, on-screen and off. I want to be him, if you get my drift. I wish I had his charm and wit. You might remember I wrote a little about these different ways of being sexy when I did the 20 over 30 SMA a couple of years.

        I think Allen’s Rome movie could work, but from the trailer I sense that it will have about the same amount of ‘Rome porn’ – meaning the purposefully gorgeous but ultimately empty idyllic depiction of Rome – as there was ‘Paris porn’ in Midnight in Paris (and no, I haven’t been to either city.) But I also like the quirkiness of Allen’s movies whekn they work, although his best years (the 1970’s and 1980’s) are way behind him.

  2. I agree with the person above me. Caught the film last week on iTunes and had been interested in it, since the release this past December.

    Being an admirer of Polanski, I went in with some expectations. The film just didn’t work. It’s spending time with four people you don’t quite care for, and who don’t care for themselves.

    Little emotional resonates and it’s simply not that biting of a satire to work.

    Nice review Franz. Hit the nail on the head, once again.

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