Celebrated French playwright Yasmina Reza is not known for turning her award-winning plays into movies. Her work is too intimate, and too focused on human frailty, to translate well to the big screen. But when her friend, director Roman Polanski — the visionary behind classic films including Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby and Repulsion — expressed an interest in adapting Reza's recent Broadway smash God of Carnage, the wheels, for better or worse, began to turn.
While the resulting film may fall short of a Polanski masterwork, it stays true to the strengths of the play and throws welcome light on Reza's sharp wit and keen eye for the savage beast that lurks within us all. It's not that Carnage isn't a good fit for the director, whose interests have always resided on the dark side of human nature. Like Reza's original play, the screenplay (credited to both Reza and Polanski) has only four characters and never really leaves a single Brooklyn apartment. This allows little room for Polanski to stretch out and put his personal stamp on the material beyond his seamless, finely crafted camerawork.
As Carnage begins, two sophisticated couples get together for a civilized discussion after one of their sons hits the other in the face with a stick in a local park, knocking out two of his teeth. Over the course of a brisk, real-time, 79-minute film, souls are bared, marriages crumble and allegiances shift. Once the rare single-malt starts to flow, the gloves come off and all hell breaks loose. And the acceptable face of propriety is stripped away like a Mardi Gras mask at midnight.
Whether presented on stage or screen, Carnage is a showcase for actors, and here the film does not disappoint. Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly embody the holier-than-thou liberal parents of the "victim," while Kate Winslet and Christopher Waltz sink their teeth into the well-heeled, corporate-shark parents of the "bully." Winslet, especially, delivers a subtle and sympathetic performance in a thankless role. Foster, on the other hand, her neck bulging with rage by the end of movie, isn't easy or fun to watch. The fact that you may feel relieved, and happy to head for the exit, once the fireworks end only attests to the collective power of the ensemble.
The film differs from the play mainly in two wordless bookends, scenes shot at some distance in the park where the assault takes place. It's a satisfying addition, and one that changes the meaning of the play in small but significant ways. That success aside, the film makes clear that Carnage was meant for the stage. Those who missed Southern Rep's recent season-opening production may find the film an acceptable substitute, at least as a way to enjoy Reza's insights firsthand. But the film also serves as a reminder that many works of theater are best experienced in their natural habitat. — Ken Korman
Directed by Roman Polanski
Starring Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet