Judge Clark Douglas is more convincing when he's being openly despicable.
A new comedy of no manners.
"Morally you're supposed to overcome your impulses, but there are times when you don't want to overcome them."
Facts of the Case
Recently, young Zachary Cowan (Elvis Polanski, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) hit his friend Ethan Longstreet (Eliot Berger) with a stick on the school playground. Ethan's face was badly bruised and several of his teeth were knocked out. Now, the parents of the two children are assembling to discuss the situation. Initially, Nancy (Kate Winslet, The Reader and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds) seem like nice people who are quite apologetic about what happened. Initially, Penelope (Jodie Foster, Flightplan) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly, Magnolia) seem like amiable hosts who are eager to forgive and forget. Alas, as the meeting progresses, the polite facade of each individual will slowly but surely disappear.
A significant portion of Roman Polanski's filmography is comprised of intense human dramas taking place within cramped locations. From the tension and paranoia of Repulsion and The Tenant to the fractured comedy of Cul-de-sac to the thunderous mystery of Death and the Maiden, Polanski has consistently delivered rewarding material when he pushes his characters into a corner and places them under a microscope. His latest claustrophobia-inducing character study is Carnage, based on a play by Yasmina Reza. It's an ugly, ferociously cynical portrait of humanity, but delivers enough legitimate insight and caustic humor along the way to make the ride worthwhile.
The driving idea of Carnage is that much of our highly evolved society is nothing more than an elaborate mask we've created to disguise our true nature. Deep down, Polanski and Reza seem to argue, we're all just monsters of one sort or another. While that argument can certainly be contested, there's a certain delight in observing these four individuals giving way to their most primitive instincts. Call it a comedy of lacking manners.
The mission statements of Carnage aren't exactly profound, but the movie excels in the little character details it supplies. Polanski's movie is first and foremost an actor's showcase, and these four talented folks seem to relish the opportunity to play such vivid characters and deliver such savagely memorable lines. Jodie Foster turns in an astonishing essay in controlled hysterics—I haven't seen someone so close to popping a vein since Jules ordered Brett to, "Say 'what' again." She clings to the idea of maintaining an appropriate measure of propriety more desperately than any of the other characters, but also seems the closest to just flying off the handle and decking everyone in the room.
Kate Winslet's Nancy is a bit more open with her feelings. She calms down more easily than Foster, but flies off the handle in a split-second. Early in the film, she grows ill and vomits all over some of Foster's most precious belongings. It's an impressively squirm-inducing sequence of physical comedy, but the scene is most effective for the way it lingers over Winslet's character for the remainder of the film. Her outrage sometimes seems kept in check by the fact that the other characters can play the, "Well, you puked all over everything" card at any moment.
John C. Reilly comes across as the most genuinely friendly and diplomatic of the bunch, cheerfully conceding points and attempting to broker peace during difficult situations. He also seems like the group's dimmest bulb, lacking the cultural sophistication of either his wife or his newfound enemies. While the descent into madness serves as a form of irritation for the rest of the group, it actually seems to liberate Reilly, who eventually embraces his role as an "openly despicable" caveman and wallows in a torrent of long-repressed misogyny and self-satisfaction.
The sharpest and funniest portrait is provided by Christoph Waltz, whose condescending apathy is the film's most consistently entertaining element. Waltz has a way of enraging both his wife and his opponents with his complete disinterest in the outcome of the proceedings, and seems to enjoy fanning the flames as the conversation proceeds. The ultimate outcome of this petty domestic dispute is essentially meaningless in his mind, his only real concern is with the business transaction he's constantly attending to via cell phone (cell phones have become an overused symbol for workaholic tendencies in pop culture, but Carnage actually uses the premise in clever fashion).
All of these characters are well-drawn and reveal additional (and almost always negative) dimensions as the film proceeds, but Polanski goes a step further to keep things compelling by constantly adjusting the dynamics of the relationships between the characters. The battle shifts from one couple vs. another couple to snobs vs. slobs, men vs. women, apathy vs. passion…the list goes on, and the four characters all find themselves aligning with and opposing each other at surprising times. Likewise, our alliances shift over the course of the film as well, as we generally find ourselves agreeing with whoever happens to be the least despicable character at any given moment. For instance, Waltz seems like a smarmy tool in the early scenes in which everyone is attempting to treat each other well. However, he doesn't really change nearly as much as the other characters do, so by the time we're in the final act, "smarmy tool" doesn't really seem as awful as some of the other stuff we've witnessed. By the time these people are through with each other, we might just be tempted to take Polanski's side.
Carnage (Blu-ray) has received a handsome 1080p/2.40:1 transfer from the good folks at Sony. While it may seem peculiar that Polanski is using such a sprawling format for such an intimate drama, it does a nice job of accentuating the petty nature of the intense squabbling the film offers. Detail is superb throughout; you can see every half-smile, slightly raised eyebrow and nervous twitch the actors offer. Flesh tones are warm and natural, blacks are deep and inky and contrast is impressive. The film itself isn't a visual showcase, but it looks good in hi-def. The DTS HD 5.0 Master Audio track (your subwoofer will have to ride the bench for 80 minutes) is solid and clean, though it doesn't have a lot to work to do. You've got dialogue, dialogue and more dialogue from start to finish. There's very little in the way of complex sound design and music (a clever composition by Alexandre Desplat, who previously goosed up Polanski's The Ghost Writer so effectively) is only heard over the opening and closing credits. The highlight of the supplemental package is a 38-minute Q&A with Reilly and Waltz, though it's accompanied by a too-brief featurette on the making of the film ("Actor's Notes"), a disposable "On the Red Carpet" featurette, a trailer and BD-Live.
Carnage is minor Polanski, but it's still a darkly entertaining viewing experience. The performances are a marvel to behold, the simply-designed plot doesn't overstay its welcome (80 minutes is just about right for a flick like this) and the ideas are provocative enough to inspire some meaty conversation afterwards. Recommended.
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