From sitcoms to recent films like In a Better World and The Descendants, the routine violence of schoolyard fights and the tense parental confrontations that can arise from them has consistently provided the screen with a reliably common inciting incident. It’s as if the very idea that children causing harm to one another – especially in a Western culture which increasingly valorizes the innocence of youth – instinctively defines their own goodness, or lack thereof, and that goes double for the parents.
It’s not an insight borne out of deep contemplation, of course. It’s simply one facet of a remarkably uncomfortable experience into which every parent eventually must plunge themselves. Most of the time, it involves numerous half-apologies thrown around, the kids mumbling “sorry” at their shoes and a handshake. As in all aspects of life, sometimes you meet an asshole parent, at which point the hope of instilling a sense of morality in your tiny victim or bully goes out the window, and “stay away from that little shit” is all that needs to be said.
Carnage, co-writer and director Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s popular play, images four genuine assholes brought together by their kids’ tussle, and traps them in a bourgeois Brooklyn living room, erases their ability to ever end a conversation with passive-aggressive niceties and move on with their lives, and watches with perverse anticipation as they drink themselves into simultaneous breakdowns. Polanski’s camera, to his credit, never remains static, but the same can’t be said for the characters who are all so unrealistically driven by ego, righteousness and domestic complacency from the moment we meet them that their descent into mild aggression – A phone gets wet! An out-of-print book is nearly ruined! Ruffians! – isn’t so much shocking as it is a relief. When cold apple-pear cobbler is enough to undo Jodie Foster’s mother of the victim when everyone’s still trying to be nice, there isn’t anywhere else to go but down.
Foster’s performance is particularly cartoonish, but, sadly, none of the other three leads rise much higher. John C. Reilly plays, basically, John C. Reilly, Foster’s more rational partner. Christoph Waltz is most animated when conducting inappropriate phone calls during the get-together – other times he’s a foil who sides with whoever serves his own interests. And Kate Winslet, whom I would gladly watch doing nothing but reading the phone book, isn’t given much to do besides get drunk and vomit. I’ll take it.
If there’s anything new Reza and Polanski have to say about human nature, it isn’t on the screen. These people don’t devolve, they aren’t brought closer to their primal instincts, and they aren’t in the least bit interesting. If it’s parents acting badly over their kids’ violent behavior you’re after, save yourself some money and search YouTube – you’ll get your devolution in no time there.