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With “Carnage,” Polanski Fights a Losing Battle to Make Theater Cinematic. But What a Cast.

With "Carnage," Polanski Fights a Losing Battle to Make Theater Cinematic. But What a Cast.

Yasmina Reza’s hit play “God of Carnage” ingeniously traps its characters on the stage. A dark comedy unfolding in real time, the chaotic plot involves a pair of well-to-do parents sorting blame for an unseen fight between their children. As they wander about one couple’s apartment, feuding and reconciling, pointing blame and breaking down in tears, “God of Carnage” develops into an alarming portrait of delusional people, particularly for an audience physically trapped in the room with them.

[Editor’s Note: This review was originally published during Indiewire’s coverage of the 49th New York Film Festival where “Carnage” opened the event. It opens in limited release this Friday through Sony Pictures Classics.]

“Carnage,” Roman Polanski’s faithful adaptation, lacks the immediate justification for the tight setting. Acknowledging as much, the director tacks on an opening shot in the New York park where the kids’ disputed encounter takes place. While it makes for an energetic beginning, this decision ruins the piece’s central ambiguity: Because the parents don’t know what happened, they impose their own biases and allow their distinct feelings of entitlement to manifest over some 90 minutes. What happened before matters less than what happens next.

On stage, it’s possible to take a selective approach, focusing on individual behavior while getting the big picture of their collective neuroses. Because “Carnage” is restricted by shots and cuts, Polanski struggles to make the material more cinematic, toying with clever mise-en-scene to showcase the mounting tensions. However, “Carnage” repeatedly suffers from an internal tension between the possibilities of two media at odds with each other. The filmed play wins out over the movie, but that’s not to say Polanski doesn’t try hard for a different outcome.

The couples begin their encounter on rather cordial terms, agreeing on an even-handed statement about the brawl at the apartment of Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) Longstreet. The other couple, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) Cowan, head for the door. But fragments of conversation lead to the assumption that they have yet to sort out the blame. Coffee is poured. The Cowans stay put. Arguments build. Regardless of its spatial limitations, the material makes sense in Polanski’s domain, because it ultimately transforms into a comic thriller always on the verge exploding into chaos.

But he doesn’t change much. Reza’s screenplay (co-written by Polanski) maintains the same enjoyable satiric contrasts of the original. In between taking ill-timed calls on his cell phone, high-powered lawyer Alan rolls his eyes at the Longstreets’ repeated intentions of working things out. Penelope, a delicate flower with bleeding-heart liberal sensibilities, frowns on Alan’s apathy. “I don’t know what language they speak in,” she mutters to her husband.

Nancy, confused about which side deserves her sympathies, vomits on the living room table. Michael tries to get along with everyone and instead becomes the primary object of scorn. The men turn against the women. Booze enters the equation. Punches are thrown; resolutions go the way of the dodo. Nancy delivers the ultimate judgment call, deeming their debates “superficially fair-minded.” Indeed, each character has their own version of fair, and nobody wins out.

Because “Carnage” contains moments of shifting allegiances, individual monologues and abrupt, comical slapstick, the camera angles tell the story. Using mirrors, tracking shots and elaborate close-ups, Polanski at least manages to make “Carnage” visually pronounced. However, he can’t free the material from its theatrical roots. As the situation gradually spirals out of control, “Carnage” still feels resolutely one-note, a fundamentally tame exercise made bearable by dialogue and performance. On the big screen, the setting is inherently claustrophobic, which works against such high-octane material. (Considering that it’s Polanski’s first movie since his long period of house arrest in Switzerland, perhaps he drew from personal experience.)

Thankfully, “Carnage” avoids complete dismissal thanks to its cast. Foster lets loose with her most heated performance in ages, playing a shrill, fragile woman always on the verge of losing it. Reilly portrays the kind of amusing naif he does best. Winslet returns to the repressed frustration that won her acclaim in “Mildred Pierce.”

Waltz, while not entirely believable as the bad guy, still inhabits a gruff superiority complex that made him so essential to the appeal of “Inglorious Basterds.” Though no longer playing a Nazi, he’s still absurdly dictatorial, the key reason “Carnage” moves from tame to maniacal territory. All talk and guided by anger, “Carnage” relies on its actors more than anything else. Polanski’s interest in the play makes sense, but the real star of the show is the casting director.

criticWIRE grade: B-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics will undoubtedly aim to land acting nominations for the cast and a screenplay nomination for Polanski and Reza. It has a better shot in the former than the latter. However, because of the adult nature of the material and the all-star cast, it’s well-positioned to do good business with older art house audiences.

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