The use of the word “armed” isn’t often a point of argument in movies today. In fact, jousting over rhetorical choices typically isn’t a point of contention in entertainment at all. It is, however, a major focal point in the new Roman Polanski film, “Carnage,” which takes pleasure in the particulars of language and shows what can be done with an engaging script and four strong actors.
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The film stars Oscar winners Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and Jodie Foster and co-stars Oscar nominee John C. Reilly. Aside from a brief scene at its beginning and end, a cameo from the director and a few voices heard over the phone, those four constitute the film’s entire cast.
Its story focuses on two sets of parents who come together to discuss a fight between their sons. Reilly and Foster play Michael and Penelope Longstreet, the parents of the victim in the fight, while Waltz and Winslet play Alan and Nancy Cowan, the assailant’s parents. The concept is simple: these four parents spend the film discussing the incident that left the Longstreet’s son with two teeth knocked out of his mouth and several facial abrasions.
What’s interesting about “Carnage” is how that confrontation becomes so meaningless during the course of this film’s short running time – eighty-nine minutes. The fight between the boys was simply that: a fight between two boys. It was simple and easy to analyze.
The battle between the four adults about the incident and its aftermath is not so easily understood.
While children fight with sticks, these parents use more impressive weapons. Penelope engages in battle with her rhetorically-elitist mindset. She uses loaded language like “deliberately,” “armed” and “disfigured” to stupefy the opposing parents. Nothing is simple with her. A short remark from her can carry the rhetorical ammunition of a dozen men.
On the other hand, Michael is a laid-back fellow who sells hardware for a living. He’s easy to get along with and very accommodating to the two guests. But he does have an angry side to him, a deviousness in him. When he became annoyed with the family hamster, he left it on the street to die without telling his wife or children.
The Cowans are more agreeable than the Longstreet’s but no less restrained as the story proceeds. Nancy is refined and kind, except when pushed. Alan, on the other hand, is a previously-divorced businessman who has no qualms about calling his own son a “maniac.”
If watching a character study of four people arguing doesn’t appeal to it, I would suggest you avoid this movie. It is, however, an intriguingly verbose film about the battles that we engage in as adults that aren’t so different from the playground fights that children participate in.
“Carnage,” as an experiment in filmmaking, might not have worked in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. Polanski, though, does a fine job with it taking a simple story about the relationship between these four adults and adding complex levels to it. There are times when the plot meanders and several silly occasions when the Cowans almost leave but never actually do. Overall, though, “Carnage” is a thoughtful and intelligent film abut the battles we engage in.
Battles that can do more damage than a simple jab from an “armed” teenage assailant.