Wednesday, February 29, 2012


While the credits roll on Roman Polanski’s Carnage, the camera fixes its eye on a simple city park. At first, it’s not quite obvious what we should be watching. Children play, joggers jog, and life carries on quietly while the audience contemplates the significance of Kate Winslet’s two assistants to Jodie Foster’s one. Then, when the last extra thank-you has been thanked and we have been legally reassured that what we have just seen is not actually documentary truth (what a relief), a dog and its owner stop by a tree. The dog lifts its leg and—cut to the Sony Pictures Classics logo. Fini.

Perhaps Polanski is not deliberately pissing on his distributor, I’ll grant that. But the timing of the shot is immaculate, cutting off at the exact moment the dog is about to mark its territory. If anything, the moment proves two things: a) Polanski is capable of some nice cinematic sleight of hand, using an elegantly simple long take to mask a streak of puerile humour, and b) he’s still a bit of a smartass.

But any humour is a welcome relief from the vicious philosophical blood sport that plays out in Carnage. A random act of violence between two children—one smashes the other in the face with a stick, knocking out several teeth—begets even more brutal emotional violence between their parents. In this corner, we have Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), the conciliatory parents of the victim. In the opposite corner, we have Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), the contrite parents of the perpetrator. Beginning with a simple meeting at the Longstreet’s apartment to talk out the repercussions of the fight, the discussion begins defensive, turns offensive, and finally ends explosive, with all four adults indiscriminately lashing out and trying to wound whoever gets in their way.

Based on a play by Yasmine Reza (who helped Polanski adapt it to the screen), the film occasionally bears its theatrical roots in unflattering ways. Lengthy dramatic monologues in which characters confess their personal lives and value systems are better suited to the stage, where the voice often takes primacy over the visual. Such moments always feel foreign to a cinematic setting, where they often force the director to stop visualizing the drama and simply watch the performance. Polanski fares better than most others would when faced with this challenge, and the cast is all quite capable, but there are still awkward moments where the performances seem pitched not to camera but rather the back rows. It should be noted, however, that Kate Winslet projectile vomits with considerable aplomb—how do you suppose that sequence fares on Broadway?

Still, if you’re going to cram four people into a room and start the cameras rolling, you could do worse than to put Roman Polanski in charge. Ever the skilled navigator of confined spaces, the director finds subtle ways to distinguish the film from canned theatre whenever possible. Sometimes his cinematic gestures are almost grand, like the fluid tracking shot that follows Penelope through the hallway and into the bathroom, with the brittle woman neurotically tidying up everywhere she goes (twice!). But it can also be something so simple as Nancy’s nervous fingers tapping in the bottom corner of the screen as her husband chatters incessantly on his cellphone. Such details seem slight on their own, but just a few of these touches are enough to provide a sense of graceful control to what might otherwise have been a chaotic, cluttered clash of wills.

The implications of the domestic squabble at the heart of the film expand until the children’s random violence becomes a stand-in for any number of horrific conflicts on distant shores (notably, Penelope is working on a book on Darfur, while the world-weary Alan has visited the continent in person). This sets up a fairly obvious opposition between Penelope’s well-intentioned liberalism and Alan’s hard-nosed conservatism. She believes the violence between the boys should be dealt with diplomatically; he testifies to the power of the gods of carnage, and begs off responsibility. Even with the occasional rearrangement of the argument along different lines—most notably gender, when the women square off against the men—the film constantly returns to that binary between a demand for civility and a shrugging invocation of natural law.

It’s not quite accurate to say the match ends in a draw—more like the canvas collapses underneath both fighters. Indeed, Polanski puts so much effort into suggesting the phoniness of everyone’s principles that the film verges on cheap nihilism at times. He upends both the snarling cynics and wounded idealists through a series of well-timed shocks that call into question all of their platitudes about the way the world should work. None of these supposedly mature adults are in any position to understand the conflict between the boys, never mind the Darfur genocide. The childrens’ world possesses its own set of codes and values never fully grasped by the parents, who argue about right and wrong from within an impenetrable fog of arrogance (when Penelope learns her son has a “gang” and may be more complicit in the fight than she first believed, her reaction is bewilderment). The film does not take sides, but rather levels the unbearable smugness of backseat moralists everywhere. Polanski damns the parents not for their beliefs about the world, but their distance from it.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Lodger

Made during the tail end of the silent era in 1927, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger lays out the director’s concerns with all the clarity of a street lamp piercing the London fog. The barebones plot is primal Hitchcock—a serial killer is prowling the London streets for fair-haired victims, while the titular lodger takes the rap, due to an outrageous series of coincidences (and, it must be acknowledged, his own general air of creepiness). Many of the familiar obsessions are already fully evident here: dim-witted cops, blondes in peril, and the prototype for dozens of unjustly accused and needlessly pursued Hitchcock protagonists, the original Wrong Man.

Yet the film’s greatest strength lies in its skewed love triangle, with the lodger and a policeman vying for affections of the landlord’s daughter Daisy. Sexual repression becomes interchangeable with police oppression, and the paranoid mistrust of the lodger is impossible to separate from everyone’s attempts to micromanage Daisy’s love life. Tellingly, the smarmy cop comes on to the girl by equating a wedding ring to a hangman’s noose, and then slaps a pair of handcuffs on her (smooth operator, he). Little wonder she prefers the lodger, who lustily kisses her golden locks and doesn’t make his love conditional upon a hanging. But in an icky twist that oddly recalls Vertigo, Daisy is revealed to be the spitting image of the lodger’s murdered sister, meaning she is essentially a recreation of his lost love (his, um, sister). Unlike Vertigo, there’s a happy ending, but only of the most sour and peculiar sort. Somehow, the murderer seems less perverse than our putative hero.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Grey

A group of hardened men—tough and brawling types, the sort who pick their teeth with rusty nails and shave with shards of broken glass—are abandoned to the wilds of Alaska. All they have is what they can carry, their only weapons a box of shotgun shells and a couple of pocketknives. Around a campfire they all sit, shyly revealing their greatest fears and sorrows as they learn to trust one another. And should this prove too much for the men, they can always take their chances with the pack of wolves just beyond the firelight, circling in the dark.

Quite possibly the cruelest male sensitivity retreat ever devised, The Grey is a hard-nosed tale of Arctic survival and existential despair. Writer/director Joe Carnahan’s mixture of visceral action scenes with introspective reveries could easily collapse into an embarrassing mish-mash of macho posturing and maudlin self-pity. Yet the film actually fits well with another recent melancholy action film, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Both invest deeply (and sincerely) in traditional tough-guy poses—Ryan Gosling’s steely, quiet driver, Liam Neeson’s no-nonsense, take-charge oil worker—and then reveal a clanging hollowness inside that strength. These are still both action films, filled with moments of vicious, blood-spattering violence. But unlike mainstream action films, they can conjure up a stillness more shattering than any of the savagery on display. There is nothing quite so lonely as a man of action in repose. 

Not that there is much time for repose in The Grey. Following the struggles of seven plane-crash survivors hounded by a pack of wolves in the Arctic, the film spends much of its time on the run with the men. But it still finds time for quiet moments around the campfire, where the terrified men try to come to terms with the looming promise of death. Granted, there’s something perfunctory in these moments—what wilderness survival tale doesn’t have the campfire bonding scene?—but Carnahan elevates them with a sense of detail. Rather than have his characters unspool long, overdramatic monologues revealing their life stories, the filmmaker instead settles on a few snatches of the past. One man is encapsulated in the image of his daughter’s hair tickling his face; another dwells upon a lousy encounter with an aged prostitute. Neeson’s character, John Ottway, is defined by the deathbed letter written by his deceased wife, which flashes before the camera on several occasions, but never long enough to read. The tantalizing detail is all we’re given.

Although the film is ostensibly a survival film, it isn’t so much about surviving as it is about coming to terms with death. If you were feeling uncharitable, you could even characterize it as a big-screen takeoff on the cheese-ball television show 1000 Ways to Die (aired on ultra-macho channel Spike, incidentally). The film ticks off a number of gruesome death fantasies, from plane crash to animal attack to drowning and asphyxiation. More importantly, the ubiquitous wolf pack serves as a somewhat obvious stand-in for the grim implacability of our own mortality. They’re the brute truth of our animal natures, which demands we succumb to the decay of the world like any other beast, regardless of whatever high-flown palliatives offered by our philosophy or religion. Still, this is an action film at root, and Carnahan’s blissfully materialist filmmaking does not neglect the physical reality of his symbols. When the metaphor is mauling you, its meaning is largely moot.

This is existential angst with teeth, in other words. When the story begins, Ottway is preparing to kill himself, coming so close as to taste the barrel of his rifle. But he stopped, either because of the memory of a poem written by his father or the taunting howl of the wolves. Later, when the men are lost in the wilderness, they each must confront death in turn. All of them seem to live for something or someone—a wife or a daughter, perhaps—except for Ottway, who lives for nothing and yet clings more tenaciously to life than all the rest. For all the film’s anguish about death and fear, it is finally a guttural piece of tough-guy philosophizing, where men grit their teeth and shout fuckface at the unblinking heavens—and then face down death with a broken bottle in hand, as if in a barroom brawl.