Comparing Carnage to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? for more than the second of noting that both are based on plays with four somewhat trapped people in a home is lazy. God of Carnage is a very different piece of work and was so from the time of its birth on stage, in Paris and then London, and then Broadway. It is a comedy of manners, then lack of manners, while Virginia Woolf is a weighty drama of emotional pain and violence. It’s a comparison that’s unfair to a film that has its own set of problems… none of which are “not being WAOVW?”.
It’s hard to define the utter failure of Carnage as a film experience. I came to it, as many critics will, having see the show, trying to remain disconnected from the impression of the source material in order to allow something new to bloom. The truth is, when I am watching a movie and thinking about the source material, the movie is already failing me, because it’s not engaging me in and of itself.
Unfortunately, the failure of Carnage speaks first to its director, Roman Polanski, who got the project because of his relationship to the playwright, but was always – in my mind – a poor choice for adapting this material. Why? For all his skills behind the camera, the beauty of Polanski’s grays has always been that, in the end, the black behind those grays is the blackest pitch black your soul can stand. The Nazis are real… the devil is real… the conspiracy is real… etc. This material is about people’s illusions about themselves. Polanski’s success as a filmmaker has been putting more honest characters up against the illusions others wish to maintain.
In this material, even as the surface images of the characters are cracked, they quickly retreat to the next layer of self-image. Polanski treats much of the film like an interrogation.. like we are going to get down to the hard reality… but there is no hard reality in a close-up here.
The first sign of trouble is in the opening credits, as we see, from a distance, a beautiful shot of a park, a proscenium created by trees, in which the boys whose actions drive the piece – a four-person conversation – live out their actions… there is a verbal fracas at the end of which, one boys hits the other across the head with a tree branch or some such piece of wood.
With that, Polanski gets the shark in Jaws to work… which is to say, he has literalized something that was better off in the audience’s head. Now every time the discussion of what one boy did to the other comes up in the piece – which is often – we have an image in our mind’s of one boy hitting another in a very specific way with a very specific object. We, in fact, know more than the four characters in the piece. To what good end? None, as far as I can see.
Our lack of factual knowledge, in the play, makes it much easier to not be sure of either “side” of this disagreement between the couples about how to proceed. Is one parent exaggerating or misunderstanding the act of aggression… or the dental consequences to the boy who’s been hit? Talk is cheap. People posture. But when you see the stick hitting one boy square in the face, audience flexibility is limited. It’s the difference between someone slipping on a banana peel in a movie and in real life. In the former, it’s a laugh… in the latter, it’s a call to 9-1-1, lost time, and fear of a lawsuit.
Polanski uses a variation on this framing device with the park at the end of the film. And to that, I have no objection. It offers perspective at the end of this comic melodrama. It is commentary, not fact… not unlike the line, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.’ Now imagine if the same character had told Jake at the beginning of the movie, (SPOILER ALERT FOR THE 18 PEOPLE READING THIS WHO HAVEN’T SEEN CHINATOWN… AND A SUGGESTION… SEE CHINATOWN ALREADY!) “Yeah, Jake… that crazy woman had a baby with her father.” Wouldn’t that color your entire experience of the story? (END “SPOILER”)
Then, the movie really begins with one couple on their way out the door of the Brooklyn apartment of another. And again, a stumble. People who really want to leave, leave. And the content of the script gives us excuses for the one couple not leaving the other couple’s apartment… but no real motivation, at least until near the end of the piece. But we are so caught up in the question of “are they leaving and how will they be motivated to say this time?” that we’re not engaging the bigger issues in the piece.
Again, I feel like I get the reason for this choice by Polanski. But it’s a bad fit. The visiting couple (Kate Winslet & Christoph Waltz) are trying to escape… from the beginning… a situation foisted upon them that they really don’t want to address. Got it.
And that really gets to the crux of why this movie doesn’t work. It’s a series of events. Some are more interesting/more successful than others. But the reason this works so well as a stage play is that it builds and builds, a train rushing down a track, the brakes becoming weaker and weaker after repeated efforts to apply them. Every time you think they have built a peace, there is one of the foursome there to tear it down.
But Polanski shoots the film in – in order of most used – singles, two-shots, singles with out-of-focus people in behind, and finally – and not until late in the game – four-shots. By singling out the characters and isolating them, cutting between them instead of letting them breathe as a group, Polanski kills the rhythm of the piece. They are all stranded, each on their own island. And it’s not like Polanski is a novice or in any way unskilled. This has to be a choice. But for me, it makes no sense with this material.
Another major example is the use of a cell phone by one character, played by Christoph Waltz. When that phone rings, the movies stops dead. Repeatedly. Clearly, a choice of Polanski’s. And yes, we all get the point. There is one scene of this, maybe the 10th call or so, where it really works and the other characters speak more and more loudly, as though they are trying to do to him what he is doing to the conversation. But it’s a movie killer most of the time. On stage, when that character is on the phone, it is an annoyance in a room of four people, but they behave as people behave when this happens these days. And he – as performed by Jeff Daniels in NY – doesn’t get louder and louder, as though he was trying to dominated the cell conversation and the room at the same time. But Waltz’ character does. And we get the joke and character development of that right off… we don’t need to do it a dozen times.
And this brings us to the other major flaw in this film. Great cast… all in the wrong roles.
The two best-of-their-generation actors are the two actresses, Jodie Foster & Kate Winslet. Both know their way around a camera as well as any actor ever has. But part of what makes them work as movie stars is that we have a good sense of them after all these years. And instead of casting against type, we kind of get exactly what we already know about both of them.
Winslet offers a soft, beautiful facade that with eventually get raw and bawdy. And Foster will start calmly and in control, only to become a tight, lean intensity machine when pushed. I am not saying that I do not relish every new performance by either of these actresses. I do. They find surprises. And they find some here. But wouldn’t it be more fun to see Winslet get shrill and Foster get goofy sexy… wouldn’t that be a surprise? Isn’t that the point of this piece? (And indeed, unexpected from Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis on Broadway, who usually play “the other role.”)
The guys are a little different. Christoph Waltz, as the script calls for, plays one note from start to finish. He’s a prick. He’s really good at it. But what was so great about seeing Jeff Daniels do this character in stage is that you don’t get “prick” from Jeff Daniels from start to finish. He looks like a floppy dog with a controlling wife, so as those characters start to switch positions, as he asserts his control and she starts to let loose (after her body lets loose), it’s a great wave.
As for John C. Reilly, he’s fine. But when he finally is asked to bring menace, he’s still not very menacing. Again, on Broadway, James Gandolfini played it brilliantly, completely convincing as a gentle, regular guy… but when he opens the cage, there’s a truly scary guy in there. Reilly can get crude, but he never feels like an alpha in this pack. Not his thing.
I, personally, have no problem with a movie in a box… which is to say, a movie that is stuck in one room, unable to expand out from its roots as a theatrical piece. I might notice there being some commercial issues with it. But no problem with that phenomenon… so long as the performances keep you breathing in that room.
In William Friedkin’s film of Killer joe, which is adapted from a Tracy Letts play, Friedkin opens it up quite a bit, then in one long sequence in a trailer – which is where the entire show took place – he pulls back and actually creates a proscenium arch at one of the most intense moments. He wouldn’t really speak to this moment in our DP/30. Perhaps with 5 people in the conversation, he wasn’t focused on that specific a detail. Maybe he didn’t really hear me. He said that he was unconcerned with it feeling theatrical. But it’s such a clear choice that there must be something specific he had in mind there.
In any case, this piece is mostly in the one room, as the play was. But in breaking it up with single-single-single and raked shots and attention-getting focus choices, Polanski isolates the characters inside of this already limiting room. My problem is that the material works so well on stage because the space breathes. It’s a social piece, not a piece made up of individuals, driven by their secrets and secret agendas. (See: Virginia Woolf, again.)
Over and over, Polanski turns the metaphors literal.
Probably the most remembered part of the show is one character vomiting in the living room. Here’s It’s Kate Winslet. The shock of it on stage cannot be reproduced on film. Nothing you can do about that. On stage, you really don’t expect that kind of thing in a 4-person talker of a play. It’s like the chandelier in Phantom (which I’ve never seen in a theater, but heard endlessly about). On film, it’s more real and less shocking because of it.
However, the connection of that moment to the next moment – the Jodie Foster character caring much more about a book she loves than about the woman who is ill – is where the film shows its weakness. Because the obsessive focus of the Foster character, in the film, is not so funny. It, too, feels real. So you are immediately swept into this very narrow focus of drying a book… or Waltz’s character wanting to clean his pants… and what is a beautiful section of farce in the play becomes the edgy, uncomfortable unattractive reality of not-unusually selfish people.
I guess that the reviews out of Venice should have made it all clear. People thought this was a drama with some comic moments. On stage, it was a comedy, without reserve, though sometimes dry and pitch black.
The audience I saw it with… true, a bunch of industry types and critics… didn’t laugh much. I kept waiting. The film had its moments, but the audience dried up within minutes of the three or so biggest comic events in the piece. So when the next one would come, the laughs didn’t come as easy and the interest in laughing at less explosive scenes just wasn’t there.
I would be curious to see this with “real people.” I’d be curious to hear what the NYFF audience sounded like.
it reminded me a bit of Altman in the 80s… stuck adapting play after play… a great talent surrounded by great talent… but just not able to really bring these shows to life on camera on those budgets with some of those plays getting in the way of his voice…