Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winning play “God of Carnage” doesn’t inherently lend itself to cinema. With four characters interacting in a single setting, and a narrative centered on a thin symbolic conceit, it’s the sort of dialogue-heavy project that could easily be captured with a tedious cut-and-dry, shot-reverse-shot filmic approach.
It’s fortunate, then, that Roman Polanski has taken it on in Carnage, and filled the roles with some of the most interesting actors around. Say what you will about Polanski the man, but Polanski the filmmaker has demonstrated an almost limitless aptitude for creative technique. Similarly, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz (four Oscar wins among them) have a preternatural gift for imbuing even the quietest moments with extraordinary, unconventional feeling.
After young Zachary Cowan hits Ethan Longstreet with a stick during a playground brawl, knocking out two of Ethan’s teeth, the latter’s parents invite the former’s to their Brooklyn apartment to discuss the incident. Over the course of a tumultuous morning, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Foster and Reilly) and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Winslet and Waltz) will spar, commiserate and touch on the essence of parenthood, manhood and the art of confronting modernity with a social conscience.
The picture flirts with the sort of stage-bound stoicism that tends to hamper these sort of high-concept, serious-minded productions. The naturalistic flow of the dialogue scripted by Polanski and Reza is occasionally interrupted by some artificially-imposed dramatics. There’s the pervasive sense that the couples’ experience is given disproportionate weight, made impossibly more significant and meaningful than such an event should be. Sustaining the premise onscreen without descending into a talky abyss is a tall order, a far more imposing challenge than the same task onstage.
Polanski meets it with fluid steadicam work and a smart, steady framing strategy that emphasizes the right characters at the right times. Standard cinematic rhythms are fascinatingly manipulated, as the constant interruptions of Alan’s cell phone serve as a kind of commercial break for the proceedings. These add fuel to an already volatile situation, fraying nerves and presenting a rare opportunity to see the other actors offer extended real world reactions that combine annoyance, disgust and mounting frustration.
Distinct personalities emerge over the course of the morning, rooted to one extreme at the beginning and undergoing a sort of paradigm shift as the conversation continues. Penelope is at once a kindhearted Brooklyn liberal and a cold, materialistic terror, practically shaking with furor and demanding a drink. Some shockingly, almost pathetically sexist garbage spews from Michael, ostensibly the cheery “why can’t we all just get along” sort. Winslet, in the film’s most memorable performance, takes Nancy on a compelling journey from the distant woman at the picture’s beginning to the domineering truth-teller that emerges toward its end. Alan, portrayed with reams of sarcasm by Waltz, remains the comic relief of sorts, an elitist above-it-all corporate hack who can’t believe he’s stuck in the same room with these people.
In their gamut of emotions these characters offer the actors rich opportunities to fully delve into the range of experiences, ideas and insecurities that comprise humanity. The wide-open visual style, which painstakingly avoids claustrophobia, gives them space to incorporate those multiple dimensions in consistently fresh, exciting ways. The screenplay touches on a wealth of subjects with aplomb and you’re never sorry to be watching the movie, even when it peters out in a dramatic haze.
This isn’t vintage Polanski. It feels a bit too long at a miniscule 79 minutes and it doesn’t offer the sort of transformative, thought-provoking narrative one might have expected from such prominent material. But when it comes to cinematic acting clinics, the chance to sit back and be amazed by four great talents, few movies could offer more.
The Upside: Roman Polanski. Jodie Foster. John C. Reilly. Kate Winslet. Christoph Waltz.
The Downside: At times the material strains to keep going.
On the Side: This was the opening night selection at this year’s New York Film Festival, obviously a prestigious slot.