"Carnage", Roman Polanski's latest oeuvre, may be one of the best movies of 2011

Roman Polanski is not the nicest man in the world. Having infamously raped an underage girl in 1977, he fled the United States to avoid the consequences. Though his victim has since ‘forgiven’ him for his crime, the case continues to fester in the courts, and Polanski has not returned to the U.S. since.

It’s somewhat surprising, then, to report that the great director’s new film, Carnage (opening this Friday, January 13th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas) is set entirely in the United States. Perhaps less surprising is the fact that — other than some very minor second unit work — it was shot entirely in France.

Based on an award-winning one-act play by Yasmina Reza (who co-wrote this screen adaptation with Polanski), Carnage tells a very simple story: as we see during the film’s short (and silent) prologue, two young Brooklyn boys have been involved in an altercation. Their parents meet to settle the matter and decide who will pay the medical bills. The end.

Of course, things aren’t quite as simple as my brief précis suggests. We quickly learn that, despite their quarrel, the boys probably still have more in common than do their parents: middle-class, vaguely new age-y Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), whose son has lost some teeth, and affluent professionals Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Walz and Kate Winslet), whose son did the amateur dental work. Chalk, meet cheese.

Initially, everyone’s on their best behavior, but it’s clear that hurt feelings and wounded egos are not far beneath the surface. Penelope displays fiery flashes of temper while Alan seems both unconcerned and unsurprised by his son’s bullying; it’s left to the avuncular Michael to sooth jangled nerves with his sunny disposition and fresh-baked fruit cobbler. As the story continues, however, the masks begin to slip, and soon all four parents are revealing their less pleasant sides — ugly facets of the human condition with which Polanski is surely familiar.

Reza’s visceral and biting screenplay offers each cast member a chance to show off their chops, and they take full advantage of the opportunity. Reilly, best known for comedic roles, appropriately gets Carnage’s biggest laugh lines, but his portrayal of hardware store owner Michael also allows him to branch out into more dramatic directions. Foster’s character betrays the deepest contradictions, vainly attempting to be understanding and sensitive while holding others to unreasonable standards. Walz (an actor whose Oscar winning turn in Inglourious Basterds I missed due to my deep-seated loathing of Quentin Tarantino) is brutally and bluntly acerbic as amoral corporate lawyer Alan; Winslet’s well-coiffed and fashionable Nancy is a wee bit more diplomatic than her husband — until she starts drinking.

Though far from being cinematic, Carnage is certainly among the best films of 2011. I’ll be shocked if an Academy Award nomination isn’t forthcoming for Polanski and Reza’s screenplay, and all four actors also deserve recognition. Even if nominated, however, this much is certain: the carnage of Roman Polanski’s personal life will prevent him from being anywhere near Hollywood on Oscar night.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...