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January 27, 2012

In dealing with other people, it’s important to maintain some standards of decorum and civilization. None of us are quite the same, and the differences can rub at each other; civilization smoothes these rough edges. But underneath this veneer, nature is red in tooth and claw. And when we strip away the thin, outer layer, the result is Carnage.

In Brooklyn Bridge Park, two young boys get into an altercation. One of them swings a stick; the other loses two teeth. Some time later, the parents of both boys get together to discuss the matter. The Cowans — Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) — whose son Zachary was the aggressor in the park have come to the home of the Longstreets — Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster), whose son Ethan was assaulted.

Things start out amiably — if awkwardly — enough. The couples are meeting for the first time, so they’re understandably stiff. Alan is a high-powered lawyer, constantly on and off of his Blackberry; Nancy is a WASP from central casting who is in “wealth management”, which wealth the source play makes more clear is primarily her husband’s. Penelope, on the other hand, works in a niche bookstore and writes about Ethiopia, Eritrea, Darfur and other troubled areas in Africa, while Michael is a wholesaler of home furnishings. These people occupy very different worlds.

And yet this is not really the root of their divisions; all four of them come from very different directions. Penelope maintains that calm, rational discussion can solve interpersonal problems, but she is adamant that Zachary should not only apologize to Ethan, but that he must do so of his own volition. Nancy is more driven by propriety; Zachary should apologize because that’s what will smooth things over. Michael just wants everyone to get along; being able to adopt a soft, conciliatory touch must come in handy as a salesman. And Alan barely wants to be there at all; he doesn’t really see the point and spends half the time on the phone dealing with his work. It’s really just a matter of time.

I love films adapted from stage plays, especially those that retain the staged feeling. Director Roman Polanski has done a great job with Yasmina Reza, who wrote Le Dieu du Carnage in the first place. The action all plays out within the Longstreets’ apartment, keeping everything nicely localized, but it never feels claustrophobic. To the contrary, the film allows us to move around the rooms along with the characters in a way that we just couldn’t on stage.

It also brings us closer to the actors, all of whom turn in excellent performances. Despite never crossing the eighty-minute mark, there’s plenty of time for each character to run a wide emotional gamut as the group steadily falls apart. These are all accomplished actors, but I want to single out Reilly in particular. He may be most widely known for his broad comedic works, but here we find an excellent reminder that he’s got more going on than just that.

The film presents us with a finely-tooled puzzle box to consider. Do we run ourselves to frustration with our ideals? or to escape with our cynicism? Do we want to do what’s right, what’s proper, what’s pleasant, or what’s expedient? And when these rival factions clash, how can we avoid giving in to the god of carnage?

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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