not in our stars, but in ourselves
Some of you may have noticed that I’ve become ever so slightly obsessed with Christoph Waltz recently. Only a little bit. I can stop any time I want to. As such, I’ve been immersing myself in his non-Tarantino films. And, well, they’re hit-and-miss. Of course, most of them are in German, and very few are subtitled, so there is a bit of a language barrier there – but I know a shitty film when I see one. Poor liebling. He is almost always worlds better than everyone else around him – except, thankfully, in Carnage (2011). Amid episodes of Kommissar Rex and rom-coms about optometrists, 3D steampunk duds and Depression-set dramas about pachyderms, it is really nice to see his talents not going to waste. It is also a refreshing change of pace to see him ably supported – by Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, and John C. Reilly on the screen, and by Roman Polanski behind the camera.
Briefly: Carnage is based on Yasmina Reza’s play, Le Dieu du carnage, and it plays out in real time. Not in one shot, mind you, but in real rather than cinematic time. That’s not the only stagey touch: apart from the opening and closing credits, all of the action takes place within one couple’s apartment and the hallway just outside. It does feel closed in, in a way that most films don’t attempt and can’t get away with – but the claustrophobia of the theatrical style contributes a lot to the action. After a playground scuffle, Zachary Cowan hits Ethan Longstreet in the face with a stick. The stick knocks out two of Ethan’s teeth, and the boys’ parents decide that they should meet to discuss the matter civilly. Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet), parents of Zachary, go to see Michael (Reilly) and Penelope (Foster), parents of Ethan. Things start off a little tense, but mostly cordial. The underlying tension snaps, eventually, with the four adults turning on each other: Cowans versus Longstreets, men versus women, human rights versus animal rights, etc., etc. Any excuse they can find to snip at one another, they take it.
I have, very often, dismissed many a film and TV show as being about nothing but “white people problems” – meaning that the characters and situations within the story could only be white, usually upper middle class. They aren’t human problems. They aren’t universal. They are only for white people. But in Carnage, that seems to me part of the point: these extremely privileged, wealthy people with no real problems go out of their way to look for malaise and misery – and then, when something like a real problem enters their world, they go completely off the deep end. Michael and Nancy have fairly humdrum jobs – he sells pots and pans and door-handles and such, and she’s an investment broker – but Alan and Penelope have chosen vocations that bring them into contact with horror all the time, from which they profit. Alan is a lawyer running a class-action suit against a pharmaceutical company that makes a drug with potentially disfiguring, permanently damaging side effects. Penelope is writing a book about “the tragedy in Darfur,” and injecting her top-down, West-is-best views of how society should operate into her book and every word she says. “I know about suffering in Africa!” she insists tearfully – but the implication is that she’s never actually set foot on the continent, while disinterested Alan has actually just returned from the Congo. She cares without understanding, and he understands without caring.
Neither Michael nor Nancy understand or care especially about anything except their failing relationships. Michael moans, “Children suck all the life out of you,” and notes that all those happy young people tripping down the aisle have no idea what kind of hell they’re in for. Nancy simply bottles up her resentment until it explodes, usually taking out everyone except her intended target – Alan.
Haven’t we all seen marriages and relationships like this? People who’ve given up on themselves and each other, manacled together for life and hating every second of it? Add children to the mix, and the especially prevalent variety of helicopter parenting of this day and age, and you’ve got a recipe for several ruined generations.
To set aside the thematic issues, I think the casting here is brilliant. It’s as if each of the four is commenting on previous roles they’ve played, as if to say, “See how wrong you can go?” Reilly played Amos Hart in Chicago (2002), in which he sang “Mr. Cellophane” – the lament of the overlooked schlub. In Chicago, he was at least kindhearted and nearsighted enough not to notice too much when he was being ignored and taken advantage of. In Carnage, he sees exactly how little valued he is, and has resigned himself to never being happy. Foster was Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs (1991), for god’s sake, and so it’s all the more depressing to see her as someone with all the firepower and none of the direction, intelligence, or vision – sort of a motorboat circling around, with no one steering it.
Waltz is like a defanged, neutered Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds (2009) – he still delights in teasing and trapping people, but he can’t do anything with or to them once he has. And Winslet has often played rather romantic roles, but she also played poor April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road (2008): a furiously sad woman with a stifling life in suburbia. If April had left her husband behind in the ‘burbs, moved back to the city, and married for security rather than love, we’d probably get Nancy.
Or maybe that’s just how I see it.
In any event, while the film is more of an intellectual exercise than a cinematic experience (and I attribute that to its roots as a play, but we’ll leave my usual prejudices against theatre aside), it’s a pretty damn entertaining exercise. Excellent performances all around, especially from my favorite traumeboot. The degradation of love has led me to many a terrible movie, and has eroded many a misguided marriage – but sometimes it brings about something good.