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"Carnage": A cruel and splendid look at the dark side of marriage and family (Film review)

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Reel Mama: "Carnage": A cruel and splendid look at the dark side of marriage and family (Film review)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Carnage": A cruel and splendid look at the dark side of marriage and family (Film review)

“Cruelty and splendor.”

These are the words Jodie Foster’s character Penelope Longstreet uses to describe the simultaneously grotesque and dazzling paintings by Francis Bacon as her guest Nancy Cowan, played by Kate Winslet, flips through a coffee table book of the artist’s work.  These words could also be used to describe the cruel psychological interplay, splendid in its cast’s portrayal, that is Carnage.  The film is Roman Polanski’s latest, now in theaters, an adaptation of Yasmin Reza’s hit play God of Carnage.  Reza co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski.  
Following a bullying incident on the playground, the parents of both 11-year-old boys involved agree to meet to discuss the issue and come to a resolution about how best to handle the situation.   Nancy and Alan Cowan are a moneyed power couple.  Nancy is an investment banker, and Alan (Christoph Waltz) is an attorney representing a big pharmaceutical company.  Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) is, at least on the surface, the likable all-American, hardworking blue collar dad who sells hardware for a living.  His wife Penelope Longstreet is a do-gooder who writes about genocide in Africa.  It is Penelope’s idea to call the meeting in the first place to discuss what to do about the incident like civilized people.  

Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christophe Waltz, and Kate Winslet as dysfunctional couples in Carnage

The Cowan’s son Zachary struck the Longstreet’s son Ethan with a stick, knocking out two of Ethan’s teeth and bloodying his mouth.  The children are discussed at length, and while we never see the children themselves, we come to know them from a variety of angles through the parents’ heated discussions.
Ultimately, the question of which child is the real bully comes to the fore:  is it Zachary, or was the boy unfairly provoked by Ethan?  As the debate plays out, each character takes on the role of the bully and is then attacked; each character lays blame and has blame laid upon him or her, and each character falls apart in his or her own way.  While many classify this as an extremely dark comedy, it really is a heartbreaking representation of the American family, one reflecting the ugly truths of family dysfunction.  The characters are not sympathetic, certainly not as parents, nor as human beings. While I won’t say that any parent can relate to this, I will say that the work is a fascinating exploration of the dark side of marriage, family, parenting, and indeed of human nature.
What begins as a difference of parenting philosophies spins out of control. Each parent reveals morally questionable privately held beliefs that slip out behind closed doors when frustration or rage overwhelms, and especially when the liquor starts flowing.  The walls crumble, and we discover who these people really are.  The mothers’ inner fears that they are bad parents, and that their children’s shortcomings are in fact their own, ultimately drive them to shocking accusations and irrational behavior.
In Penelope’s case, we discover her hypocrisy through the un-PC attitude she takes toward the maid, who failed to refrigerate the soda, in spite of representing herself as a crusader for noble causes.  Nancy, who at first seems genteel and apologetic, admits that for her the day to day of parenting is “boring” and “excruciating.”  

Kate Winslet portrays the repressed Nancy in Carnage

To say that the fathers are out of touch is an understatement.  Alan is a self-absorbed and apathetic business man, seemingly incapable of feeling. But the real bombshell is Michael:  behind that inviting and friendly facade lies a true nature that is really unsettling.
There is very little violence in the film, as the title suggests, but instead words are weapons that sear the heart and torture the mind.  Are humans merely puppets manipulated by the so-called God of Carnage, a deity at the center of a belief system that humans are animals at heart, ruled by base instincts? Alan believes so, but Foster’s Penelope doesn’t want to buy it.  She believes we are truly good at heart, and fights tooth and nail to take the moral high ground, to resolve the conflict peaceably, like a decent, compassionate human being.  Yet even she is at times judgmental, at others playing the martyr, and sometimes acting as immaturely as her 11-year-old son.  

Jodie Foster as Penelope losing it in Carnage, with John C. Reilly.  These people have issues!

Carnage was released last year, and didn’t make the cut for an Oscar nomination.  Part of Polanski’s challenge with this movie was breathing cinematic life into a play that takes place in one New York apartment.  While the movie can feel claustrophobic at times, and there are moments when it’s obvious that this is a play adapted for the screen, either through dialogue or blocking, the film is never static, and the confined quarters are appropriate for these characters who are emotionally trapped.  The suspense lies in what these unpredictable characters are going to do next.  
The film bears comparison with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another wildly successful play with explosive performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, a husband and wife who invite another couple over for cocktails, and a liquor-fueled destructive battle royal ensues.
Reel Mama’s rating: Appropriate for ages 17 and up.  The sophisticated adult themes will best be appreciated by older teens.  There is quite a bit of profanity. 

View the trailer on Youtube here:


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