Monday, January 16, 2012


I’m still in the early stages of parenting, and Jackson isn’t yet to the point in life when much of what he does each day is separate from either me or Amy; and so with that in mind it’s hard for me to get much of a grasp on whether or not society as a whole needs a gentle reminder that older kids live in a world that is almost entirely separate from that of their parents. I have no doubt that I will need to be reminded of that truism one of these days, and when that day comes, I hope to be able to reach for a copy of this film on DVD—or to be able to stream it from my iCloud account, or from Netflix, or whatever—so that I can laugh like an idiot at what short-sighted clowns grownups and parents can be when they lose sight, even for a moment, of that seemingly basic fact.

Carnage opens with a playground scene shown in its long view, and a developing argument between two young boys. They begin to swat and slap at each other, and then one of the boys picks up from the ground a stick so long that it might as well be called a branch; and with this weapon, he strikes the other boy across the face. Fight over, fade to black. The next scene—the second of what will be a total of four scenes in the film—opens in the apartment of Michael and Penelope Longstreet, with Penelope sitting at her computer and composing a letter—a statement, rather—expressing her and her husband’s view of what happened between their son, Ethan, and Zachary, the boy with the stick from the previous scene. Thanks to Zachary, Ethan has cuts and bruises on his face, and has lost two teeth.

Two incisors, his mother specifies. Not necessarily because incisors are any more important than other teeth—but mostly just because Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) likes to specify things. Zachary’s father, Alan, takes issue with Penelope’s description of Zachary as being “armed with a stick,” and eventually gets her to acquiesce to using the phrase “carrying a stick.” Once the parties involved—Penelope and Michael (John C. Reilly) and Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet, respectively) are satisfied with the statement, Penelope prints a copy and hands it to the Cowans—specifying, of course, that this just represents the statement of the Longstreets, and that she expects a statement from the Cowans to follow in due course.

Other than the long shots of the boys in the opening scene (and later in the closing scene), these are the only cast members who are actually seen on screen. Consider for a moment the filmmaking pedigree here contained: Roman Polanski—thrice nominated for and once awarded the Best Director Oscar—co-wrote and directed this picutre, and he brought in Foster, Reilly, Waltz, and Winslet to act in it—a group of actors with four Oscars between them. And the four of them (plus the crew) are going to occupy this single apartment set for the next eighty-odd minutes. This is one of the reasons that adapting stage plays to the big screen can be difficult. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert notes that plays structured in this way are especially well-suited for the stage; and then he goes on to say that he is “not sure it called out to be filmed.”

I disagree wholeheartedly, and for a couple of reasons. The first is that a stage play is likely to be seen by far fewer people than a feature film—even a fairly small feature film such as this. That’s unfortunate, especially in this case, because there is some surprisingly funny social commentary that takes place in the film’s short running time (80 minutes). A lot of that commentary is directed toward the role that cell phones play in most people’s lives, how ridiculous are the people who are tied to those goofy devices. I’m completely in favor of anything that helps people to understand and treat their addictions to their cell phones. The film also comments on other material goods, and to a lesser extent on the lifestyles of people who care too much about material goods.

The second reason that I disagree with Mr. Ebert is because of the kind of film that this is. For the most part, you have four people, in one apartment, talking to each other. You know—actors acting the lines of a solid screenplay. Things that you have to think about a little bit. No explosions. Sure, some of the dialogue feels a little bit theatrical, and the characters are exaggerations; but the film was shot in real time, making it necessary for the cast learn all of their lines in one go, both of which are practically unheard of in the movie world. (Check out the production notes here.)

So what happens in the film? The four parents talk over what is to be done about the mess their kids have gotten themselves into. Alan, a lawyer, constantly excuses himself to take calls on his cell phone; Penelope tries to be all new-age parent-y, wanting the boys to get together and talk about their feelings, while she does an increasingly poor job of keeping a lid on her nearly boiling rage at what has happened to her son; and Michael and Nancy, at first, attempt to run interference for their respective spouses. Then they break out the Scotch. Watching these actors portray the actions and reactions of their characters is a real treat, especially as the film progresses and the dynamics of the conversations evolve and opinions and allegiances undergo both subtle and not-so-subtle changes. The ending is especially satisfying (other than the extremely silly and entirely out of place penultimate scene), the back end of the frame employed in the opening scene, which, when juxtaposed with what goes on between the bookend secnes, puts a pretty funny perspective on the way parents behave with respect to their kids.

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