“I am glad our son beat the shit out of your son, and I wipe my ass with your human rights!”- One mother to another.
The H-Bomb: One afternoon, while playing in a park in New York City, two boys get into an altercation in which one boy picks up a big stick and whacks the other across the face with it. We come to find out that the boy who was hit lost two teeth and suffered some minor nerve damage as a result. Instead of going the “knee-jerk” route by suing, the parents of the victim, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly), invite the parents of the attacker, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) over to their apartment in order to “talk things out.”
Their meeting starts out pleasantly enough, with coffee and cobbler being served, and everyone discussing the situation in a calm, rational manner. After all, these are four civilized, mature adults, not two kids on a playground. There’s no way this discussion could go downhill and turn into an ugly, petty verbal brawl, is there…? Yeah, right… lest you forget, these are New Yorkers we’re talking about here.
So, naturally, the polite façades of both couples gradually deteriorate. At first, it’s a mere disagreement over wording in a letter (“Our son was not ‘armed’ with a stick, he was ‘carrying’ a stick“), but from there, the conversation becomes increasingly unpleasant, as snide little jabs turn into accusations, accusations turn into insults, and full-on shouting matches soon dominate the proceedings.
Eventually, the coffee pot is replaced with a bottle of Scotch… then the gloves really come off, as the “nice n’ friendly” act is dropped entirely and everyone starts to say what they really think. What they really think of the fight their kids got into, and what they really think of each other. Spontaneous vomiting, mocking of spousal pet names, and lectures on animal cruelty ensue in this epic war of the words, in which alliances constantly shift (couple vs. couple, women vs. men, spouse vs. spouse, etc.) and from which no one shall emerge unscathed.
Before I go into this review, let me just say, that one major reason for my lack of interest in having children is that, if I ever did, I would at some point have to deal with shit like this. Whether my kid would be the bully or the victim, something like this would inevitably happen, and I would get pulled into it, and that is something I would just as soon live without, so a big thank you to director Roman Polanski for reaffirming my stance on this.
I must also thank Mr. Polanski for taking the stage play “God of Carnage”, by Yasmina Reza, and adapting it into one hell of an entertaining, if unapologetically bitter, film. That bitterness will, without a doubt, be off-putting to many, as will the characters themselves, who by the time the film is finished, will have all proven themselves to be contemptible cretins who should not even be allowed in the same room with children, let alone be raising them (kind of like Polanski himself, amirite? Sorry, couldn’t resist).
But to me, that is the point behind this “comedy of no manners,” that people are, in general, contemptible cretins who harbor nothing but pure disdain for their fellow man, and who mainly hide their feelings through bullshit pleasantries that include, but are not limited to, forced smiles, false compliments, pretend concern, and idle chit-chat. That is indeed a deeply sour and cynical view of the human race, but one that probably has more truth to it than any of us would like to admit.
So, with all that laid out, why would anyone voluntarily spend ninety minutes watching these fucking jerks? Well, aside from the fascination of witnessing this “friendly meeting” devolve into childish finger pointing and name calling, there’s also the terrific script (by Reza and Polanski) chock full of acid-laced dialogue that’s as hilarious as it is mean-spirited. This is aided by Polanski’s sharp, snappy direction that never allows for even a single dull moment, despite the film being essentially one long conversation set in a single location.
Another, and more important, reason this conversation never loses steam or becomes static is the cast. All four of these actors are top drawer talent, and they are all in fine form. Foster, as Penelope, the outraged mom who believes herself to be, morally, completely in the right, gives her best performance since she played Clarice Starling so many moons ago. Winslet is just as good as Nancy, the other mother, who doesn’t necessarily believe that her kid should shoulder all the blame in this incident. Reilly is a riot as the overly cheery Michael, whose happy-go-lucky demeanor seems just a little too good to not be a complete and total act.
As fantastic as they all are, there is one amongst them who steals the show completely. The same guy who stole Inglourious Basterds back in 2009 and nabbed an Oscar for it, Mr. Christoph Waltz. Here, as the attacker’s smarmy, caustic father, he once again works his magic and gives a performance that everyone will be talking about long after the movie’s over. In a way, his Alan is the most sympathetic of the four, in that he is the most honest, as evidenced in how he does very little to hide his utter disinterest in the entire situation, not to mention his contempt for his hosts. He constantly answers his cell phone during the discussion, and makes several attempts to leave throughout. Watching Waltz at work here was a fiendish delight, and makes me even more anxious for Django Unchained, where he looks poised to steal the show yet again.
Anyhow, getting back to Carnage, what more is there to say, other than mark this down as another win for Polanski. He may be getting up there in age, but as a filmmaker, he’s as on point as ever. Everything about the film; the script, the direction, the performances, are all damn close to perfect. It‘s an exceptionally nasty movie about exceptionally nasty people, and should only be seen by those who like their comedies pitch black with a razor sharp edge. If you are one of those, then you will likely find yourself rewarded, especially by the film’s final shot, which wraps everything up in one nice, big, ironic bow.