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Some of my favorite movies take place in small spaces. That’s because the sheer amount of talent and ingenuity it takes to keep a story interesting without changing location is impressive to say the least. Alfred Hitchcock did it most effectively with Rear Window and the excellent, underseen Rope, but recent attempts have proved to be just as interesting, like John Cusack’s terrific horror thriller, 1408, and Ryan Reynolds’ nail biter, Buried. The newest attempt, Carnage, which is adapted from a play and written and directed by Roman Polanski, is one of the best. It’s a masterful display of intense, focused storytelling that ranks among the best of the year.

The story takes place at the home of Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), a married couple whose son just recently got in a fight with the son of Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet). The two couples are pairing together to discuss the situation and come to a mutual understanding of what happened. But what begins as a calm discussion soon becomes a heated argument where emotions rise and tempers flare. The two couples are about to show their true selves.

What Carnage does so well is keep the playing field level. It doesn’t take sides in the argument and lets you judge them for yourselves, though you most likely won’t be taking sides either, but it’s not because you’re looking from a neutral point of view. It’s because you’ll understand what all four characters are saying at certain points. Think of it like a game of Pong where your opinion is the dot in the middle. At first, you’ll agree with Foster when you realize that Waltz is more job oriented than family, seemingly unconcerned with the fact that his son beat up another young boy. But then you’ll find yourself disgusted at Foster’s pretentious, holier-than-thou attitude and her gall to basically tell Waltz and Winslet how to raise their son, even though her son is just as much at fault for the scuffle.

That bickering soon shifts from their sons to themselves, however, and the movie really begins to shine a light on their personalities. When most movies set their characters up with certain personality traits that are unchanging, Carnage creates characters that evolve throughout. The troubles of the children begin to take a back seat to the weaknesses of the parents. This naturally causes the male and female mentalities to diverge, which brings the sexes together while the couples drift apart.

Carnage is a very awkward movie, not structurally or artistically, but literally because the situation the parents find themselves in is inherently awkward. It’s a type of situation that has many variations and that many have lived through, which is precisely why it works. It takes a not uncommon event and creates a what-if scenario out of it. It shows a group of people saying whatever is on their mind, a luxury I’m sure many would like to have, yet it’s never mean spirited. Rather, it’s often very funny and at a brisk 79 minutes, it never wears out its welcome. Its ending may be a bit abrupt, but it’s nevertheless profound, showing in one simple shot that the parents made the fight out to be a bigger deal than the actual kids involved with the it.

When most movies can’t manage to maintain interest jetting all over the world, Carnage does it in one small apartment. It’s not flawless, but the ensemble cast is one of the most impressive of the year and the steady-handed direction is beautifully understated. It may be a small movie, but a big heart went into it and if you have the time to spare, it’s definitely worth seeing.

Carnage receives 4.5/5

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