Originally published January 27, 2012 at 3:18 p.m., updated January 27, 2012 at 2:46 p.m.
I’ve pretty much avoided the films of Roman Polanski, with the exception of “Chinatown.” I know critics – Europeans, especially -- think he’s wonderful. But my general reaction to his name was a sort of an indifferent ill-will, if there is such a thing. That is, until he got arrested in Switzerland not long ago. That’s when Steve Lopez of the L.A. Times excerpted the grand jury testimony from Polanski’s old rape case in his column. Ill-will turned into revulsion.
I mention this so when I say that Polanski’s latest, “Carnage,” playing at the Landmark Hillcrest, is a little gem, and you ought to see it PDQ, you know I mean it.
Based on Yasmina Reza’s play “The God of Carnage,” the entire story plays out in the homey Brooklyn co-op of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), a “writer” and hardware salesman, respectively. Their son Ethan’s teeth have been knocked out by Zachary, the son of power couple Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz). He’s an attorney; she’s -- who knows?
All four are at the Longstreets’ to politely mediate among themselves, to handle the situation as civilized human beings and avoid lawsuits, recriminations and yelling. Alas for good intentions.
Everyone is eager to come to a resolution, but unwilling to concede the high ground. As they thrust and parry, the little sarcasms begin to strike home. Jaws clench; offense is taken; astonishment is expressed. As the meeting goes on for what seems like days, the arrows of insult get sharper and fall faster. Alan’s cell phone practically becomes a character in the drama. Alcohol is swilled. Everyone gets blind drunk. Alliances form, disintegrate and re-form. Penelope devolves from tightly wound to completely nuts. Nancy gets sick all over the art books.
Foster and Waltz are magnificent. We begin to see that Penelope, struggling to contain her sense of injury and moral righteousness, can barely hold herself together at the best of times. Although it’s her son who was attacked, she earns no sympathy at all. Waltz’s Alan -- distant, arrogant and witty -- somehow manages to become almost likable when he goads Penelope and watches the result with drunken amusement. Hard to do.
“Carnage” has the claustrophobic feeling of a play made into a movie, but that only enhances the experience of watching these four go at each other in a confined space. It’s shocking and entertaining at once.
Very much worth seeing, no matter who made it.