Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage takes to the screen
There’s a scene late in “Carnage” in which Penelope – the type-A, upper-middle class mother played by Jodie Foster – asks “why is everything so exhausting?” This question applies just as much to “Carnage” itself. This tale of sound and fury, despite sharp direction and a universally-strong cast, ultimately signifies nothing.
“Carnage” is set almost entirely within the four walls of an upper-class apartment in Brooklyn. Its residents, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Foster and John C. Reilly), have called upon Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) to discuss a fight that took place between their 11-year-old sons. Though the couples begin the dialogue with (admittedly false) amicability over homemade cobbler, it isn’t long before simmering tensions between all four of the players come to a full boil.
“Carnage,” which is adapted from Yasmina Reza’s 2009 Tony and Olivier award-winning God of Carnage, betrays its theatrical roots almost immediately. It’s easy to see what attracted the film’s stars to this material; the dialogue is an actor’s dream, with a full gamut of emotion and at least one choice, juicy monologue for each character. And they do “Carnage” just as many favors as the material does them.
This is a stunning lineup of performers: Three of the four leads has won an Academy Award for acting – Foster for “The Accused” and “Silence of the Lambs,” Winslet for “The Reader” and Waltz for “Inglourious Basterds” – and the fourth, John C. Reilly, was nominated for his stellar turn in 2003’s Best Picture-winning “Chicago.”
Director Roman Polanski also acquits himself well; the camera gleefully dances around the actors as the spar like prizefighters. Polanski, who also receives a screenwriting credit and briefly cameos in the film, has an obvious passion for this material that’s evident on the big screen.
But for all its strengths, there’s something about “Carnage” that falls a little flat. A large part of it is due to the film’s blandly regressive worldview, which hits the “humans are animals” button early and spends the rest of its runtime pushing it. The fight begins largely with semantics: was Zachary “armed” with a stick or merely carrying it? Was Ethan actually “disfigured” by the attack? Is “name-calling” also a kind of abuse, and if so, was Zachary’s attack on Ethan any more justified?
Those are intriguing questions. But as the couples begin to turn first on each other, and then inevitably on themselves, “Carnage” becomes a comfortably, predictably nihilistic film that thinks it’s more subversive than it actually is.
The increasingly-contrived debates (eventually abetted by healthy servings of scotch) that drive the film’s actions – based on everything from contemporary gender roles to the amorality of releasing a hamster into the wild – offer plenty of bluster but very little by way of actual human insight. These people use words like swords against one another, but can’t seem to land anything more than a glancing blow; they’re all too jaded, cynical, and self-absorbed to care what the others think of them. Everyone constantly switch sides, with Michael and Alan bonding over an 18-year scotch and Penelope and Nancy laughing hysterically together after the destruction of Alan’s much-loathed cell phone. But in the end, each of the characters finds him or herself without a single ally, friend, or lover.
“Carnage” tears down the veneer of social niceties that hold civilization together, but doesn’t suggest that there’s a more practical or hopeful scheme that can take its place. The empty nihilism means that there’s nothing, in the end, that holds “Carnage” together as a cohesive or insightful piece of art. This is feel-bad cinema at its feel-baddest, and perhaps that’s the film’s purpose – just look at the title – but its cynicism never approaches profundity, either.
If there’s any hope to be found in the amorality of “Carnage,” it’s in material that didn’t exist in the original stage productions of God of Carnage. Polanski’s primary change to the play comes in the form of two short vignettes that bookend the film which center on Ethan and Zachary in the park. In the former, we witness the actual attack that sparked the events of the film. Viewed from a distance, it’s quick and pathetically straightforward – the polar opposite of the ugly, vindictive attacks that make up the interactions between the elder Longstreets and Cowans. In the latter, which runs during the film’s credits, we see Ethan and Zachary chatting calmly, presumably oblivious to the bitterness that their schoolyard scuffle brought to their parents’ lives.
By including these scenes, Polanski highlights the triviality of the simple event that threatens to tear both the Cowans and the Longstreets apart. But he also offers a glimmer of hope that’s absent from God of Carnage; a sense that while the real animals may be bickering high above the earth in a Brooklyn apartment, the rest of the natural world can carry on peacefully below.
“Carnage”, which is playing now in NY and LA, opens in the DC area January 13, 2012.
Screenplay by Yasmina Reza and Roman Polanski
Based on God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza
Starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly
Reviewed by Scott Meslow
Running time: 79 minutes