Hell Is Other People
Published on December 14th, 2011 | by Charles H. Meyer1
Running time: 79 minutes. Rated R.
In his new film “Carnage,” set almost entirely within the confines of a New York City apartment, Roman Polanski, ever the master of staging tense dramas in tight spaces, tacitly repeats the cynical Sartrean adage implied by his boat-bound first feature, “Knife in the Water” (1962): “Hell is other people.” Reinforcing the film’s atmosphere of confinement, Polanski employs his signature framing device of beginning and ending with a shot of the same location, a device he has used so consistently—almost without exception—that it amounts to a formal expression of the Polanskian worldview: “We are trapped. There is no exit.”
Indeed, “Carnage,” an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s brilliantly bitter, darkly funny play “God of Carnage,” strikes me as a worthy contender for the title of “feel-bad comedy of the year.” The film opens with a scene of adolescent boys playing in the distant middleground of a long shot of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Nothing much seems to be happening until we see one of the boys, isolated from the rest, lift up a broken-off tree branch and whack one of the other boys in the face with it. But the scene transpires at such a great distance from us, we are at such a cool remove from the action, that we hear none of the boys’ dialogue and are unable to discern the exact circumstances of the conflict. The effect is to render us as uncertain as the two implicated boys’ parents, all absent from the scene, as to how to handle the event. The parents, whom we meet at the injured boy’s home, a home they find themselves continually incapable of leaving due to their tragicomically absurd inability to come to terms with the incident in the park, are played with consummate skill by Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, the kind of dream team of a cast that only a filmmaking legend like Polanski can pull together. As the two couples relentlessly duke it out over their boys’ playground scuffle, we are treated to a ceaseless pinball game of negotiations and emotional exchanges that over the course of the film go from stiffly polite to passive-aggressive to aggressive to rather vicious, all of these interpersonal drunken chess moves delivered in virtuoso performances by four awesomely talented actors. Reza, Polanski, Foster, Reilly, Winslet and Waltz remind us that world-class filmmaking’s most valuable assets are a great script, great directing and great acting. “Carnage” is not to be missed.