Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet
Written by: Roman Polanski, Yasmina Reza, based on a play by Yasmina Reza
Directed by: Roman Polanski
MPAA Rating: R for language
Running Time: 79
Date: 09/01/2011

Carnage (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Parent Trap

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Four people, two sets of parents, sit in a room, gathered around a computer. One parent types up a kind of accident report. Two boys have been in a playground squabble that resulted in a hospital visit for the victim. The parents have apparently agreed to get together and talk about it. The report is finished and printed, and the parents try to exude a sense of relief. They try, but they fail.

Tension has already arisen over the use of the word "armed" in the report. The dynamic between the four adults allows this particular tense detail to squeeze out in the open, like a half-inflated balloon pushed down on one end. They begin to play off of one another in inevitable ballet of rage, disappointment, ego, and long-buried resentment.

The players include Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz), a lawyer that answers his cell phone every few minutes, and even talks while he's munching on cobbler. Alan's wife is Nancy (Kate Winslet), also a well-dressed professional. They are the parents of the aggressor. The victim's parents are Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), a lover of art and a writer of obscure non-fiction books, and her happy-go-lucky husband Michael (John C. Reilly), a seller of pots and pans.

Even though the business is concluded in the opening minutes, Michael convinces the guests to stay for a bit, for some coffee and cobbler. Alan and Nancy make several attempts to leave, but usually end up coming back inside. (Loud reproaches in the hallway causes a dog to bark and neighbors to peek out of their doorways.) Discussions turn to arguments. Arguments turn into embarrassing situations. Embarrassing situations bring out the liquor. And the liquor leads to confessions.

This is the essence of Carnage, the new movie by Roman Polanski, filmed almost entirely on a single set, and based on a French play by Yasmina Reza. It sounds like a filmed play, but thanks to Polanski's skill and nuance, it doesn't necessarily feel like a filmed play. Polanski has always been a master of placement in the frame; even in 1968, in Rosemary's Baby, he understood how to place Mia Farrow slightly out of frame so that the audience felt the need to lean sideways to see more of her.

Polanski uses everything here, the layout of the apartment, the props, cutting, wardrobe, light, etc., to grind out emotional suspense. Alan constantly wears his big, dark overcoat, making him look more foreboding, but also adding to a level of discomfort he might be feeling (isn't he a bit warm?). Penelope goes completely around the bend when her cobbler has been unexpectedly refrigerated, and later, when the Coca-Cola has been left, warm, in the cabinet.

Also, Polanski and Reza -- who adapted the screenplay together -- keep an eye on black comedy, maintaining that as this situation spirals out of control, laughter is an essential part of making sense of it. If the director had done nothing but milk the drama, this situation would have quickly grown unbearable. But there's an element of enjoyment, for us who are outside and not directly involved. It could easily be us up there, but it's not!

A movie like this is an actor's dream, and all four players turn in excellent work. Waltz probably gets the best role; his character has the smooth confidence, and is usually the first one out with scathing observations. (He is the last one to suffer an attack, at his weakest point, no less.) Reilly's role seems to have been written specifically for him, or otherwise, he adapts his screen persona to fit it perfectly. But he goes further here than in other films. His nice guy act and his insecurities come to a boil, and reveal the finer stuff underneath. Foster winds herself up to the point of enormous pressure; she's practically quivering until she gets to explode. Winslet has the hardest job; she has to vomit and then recover from this socially awkward move, but she's superb at keeping her crystalline shell and pinpoints of anger.

This is the kind of movie John Waters might have made if his career had moved in this direction. It's hysterical in the best sense of the word, but it's also cunning, powerful, and brilliant (even if it's not quite as thrilling as last year's The Ghost Writer). Now older than Hitchcock was at the time he made his final movie, Polanski is still at the top of his game.

Sony Pictures Classics has released a DVD with a few interesting extras: We get "actor's notes" (about 10 minutes), "An Evening with Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly" (about 37 minutes), footage from the red carpet premiere (about 3 minutes), and a trailer. Of course, Polanski is nowhere to be seen. (There's also a Blu-Ray, but I received only the DVD edition.)

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