Carnage (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Carnage (2011)

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When Carnage begins the conservative couple is already trying to get out the door.  This is one of the few times where I wish I could have gone with them.  This isn't a bad film, "bold", you might hear.  But I searched for a purpose beyond reason for Roman Polanski to cut loose with some really bad eggs.

I shifted a bit uncomfortably as the four grew more honest and disdainful with each other.  This wasn't because of the implications of the dialogue, which here sounds a bit like the kind of daydream come-backs you think up 24 hours after an insult has flown by.  There's casual misogyny, shared with some passivity between the two wives, and a mutually reckless and privileged view of troubles in Africa.   It's all very insightful in the ways it picks apart the differences between modern liberal and thought patterns but despite the intelligence I still kept shifting.

Then, looking at the interplay between Christoph Waltz and Jodie Foster during a very angry moment it struck me.  Polanski is making one version of the film with his joyful musical intro and bright color collision between the blues and the reds, while the cast is acting in another film entirely different from the one those visual textures are producing.  This is a film going through a strong identity crisis.

Based on the play The God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza (who shares a screenwriting credit here), Carnage is a political culture clash where most of the malarkey gets left by the wayside.  This is an outsiders take on the American struggles between liberals and conservatives, where the liberal gets exposed as a thoughtless panderer of art without thinking of any real world implications, while the conservative "gets" it and is maliciously evil and callous.  Given that Polanski can't enter the country without going straight to jail gives him a presumed position of dominance over the critique while a different one comes from the cast.

The liberals are represented by Foster and the always sturdy John C. Reilly, while the conservatives get their avatars in Kate Winslet and Waltz.  Between the four cast members there are an equal number of acting Oscars and the performances are more than up to the weight of all that gold.  Reilly does the deftest work slowly pulling back the charming, "aw shucks" husband to reveal a simmering hatred toward his minority cause toting wife.  Winslet and Foster are both very good, playing on the edge right at the beginning with their barely concealed aggression taunts until turning into very different passive wives.  But Waltz seems born to play a lip smacking lawyer, eyes burning with murder and lips palpably enjoying every bit of character assassination he gets to inflict on the pathetic idealists.

All the elements are in play for a great production but there is so much anger overwhelming the excellent dialogue that it underscores the black comedy Polanski is going for.  All the chipper wardrobe and bright lights clash directly with the very real rage that the rest of the cast is presenting.  The result feels a bit insulting at times, like Polanski gets to joke (no matter how grimly) about our desperate class warfare while the rest of the cast is more in tune to the murderous tendencies of American rhetoric right now.

The film would have been better served by a director willing to follow these performers down to their bitterest cores, or by a different cast willing to lighten up just a smidge to fit the darkly humorous tone.  Since the film did not delve so deeply into one direction or the other I was left with a lot of sharp dialogue, excellently delivered, but revealing very little about ourselves not already apparent.

The world is filled with hypocritical bleeding heart liberals and sadistically manipulative conservatives.  You could jumble those adjectives to both groups around a bit and it would still ring true.  But differing agendas sometimes yield fruitful partnerships, other times a blast of confusion, and here is a ripe example of a question mark when an exclamation point would do quite nicely.

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Carnage (2011)

Directed by Roman Polanski.
Screenplay by Roman Polanski and  Yasmina Reza.
Starring Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I just 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. Good review Andrew.

    • Thank you for the comment Dan. I completely agree with you, and as skillful as the film is the movie doesn’t know how to handle that last ring. Onstage that’s the perfect moment to kill the lights, instead Polanski tries for one last ironic stab at friendship and leaves it at that. I would kill to see someone like Bobcat Goldthwaite with this material;

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