Carnage

Carnage does not pretend it isn’t based on a play, unlike Ides of March. There are two — at least, perhaps more — times where the characters decide, under the flimsiest of motivations, to stay in the same room yelling at each other.

If you’re willing to overlook that, and the rather uninspired directing by the usually confident Roman Polanski, you’ll be treated to three excellent performances and a very good one. Jodie Foster is a bit out-matched by Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christophe Waltz, even though her character, Penelope Longstreet, a pious liberal with a quiet desperation, is the most developed of the quartet.

John C. Reilly plays her husband, Michael, an affable cookery salesman who can acquiesce to his wife’s liberal instincts for only so long. Their son has suffered from a schoolyard attack by the son of the Cowans (Winslet and Waltz), but which boy was the true victim is the subject of much debate. Waltz, as a lawyer who advises pharmaceutical companies on how to deny culpability, is perfectly cast in terms of his sly, slimy persona. His accent, however, is never explained in the text, which makes his character’s hyper-sensitivity to the use of English words less-than believable. Kate Winslet has already proven her facility with an American accent many times, and has no such believability problems. Her portrayal of the buttoned-up Nancy’s descent into candor is the highlight of the film.

The play is a translation of a French original by playwright Yasmina Reza, Le dieu du carnage (The God of Carnage). I saw her celebrated play Art in London in the late 90’s, and that was also a very funny and very vicious examination of upper-middle-class mores. This play/movie doesn’t quite have the same climactic finish as Art. The energy ramps up, but there seems to me to be a great deal further to go when the figurative curtain drops. The ending felt more like an intermission break — the veneer of society peeled back only halfway.

The screenplay for Carnage is credited to Polanski and Reza. Christopher Hampton translated it for the London stage, and I bet I’d have preferred his version. Still, as a royal rumble between great actors, you can do worse than to give them a proven stage property and set them at each others throats. Reza’s tale seems to endorse the idea that civilization is really a fragile construction, but also a self-healing one. For all they tear each other down, these couples are simpatico in many ways. I could see friendships forming out of this encounter that last longer than the marriages.

Rampart

Rampart is the second collaboration between writer/director Oren Moverman and actor Woody Harrelson, the first being 2009’s The Messenger, which I watched last week on Netflix streaming, and which blew me away. Once again, they have created an unforgettable character. Harrelson’s Officer Dave “Daterape” Brown is the kind of hard-ass, manly cop you would expect to be terse and plainspoken. Instead, he relishes florid language and quoting esoteric legal opinions. His tragic flaw is his own moral certainty, which blinds him to the shades of grey all around him.

Rampart takes place in the middle of the scandal surrounding the Rampart division of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1999. In this climate, “Daterape” Brown’s brutal tactics that once made him a hero, now make him a pariah. Moverman, along with his co-screenwriter, the crime novelist James Ellroy, has chosen an elliptical, expressionistic style for this story and it works like gangbusters.

As Dave’s paranoia and self-destructiveness metastasize, editor Jay Rabinowitz skillfully whipsaws us through his encounters with his family, the top brass and a string of women. The gritty, high-contrast cinematography by d.p. Bobby Bukowski is phenomenal. The only stylistic flourish that felt too strained was a deposition scene where the conversation literally went in circles.

Like The Messenger, this film is a difficult sell in traditional commercial terms. Is Dave a victim of weak-spined politicians, or a symbol of police corruption? What are we to make of the characters played by Ned Beatty and Robin Wright who may or may not be double-dealing against him? Can any movie which foregrounds character so much over the plot be sold to mass audiences? Then again, Drive has done okay. I hope Rampart will be able to find the same smart genre audience.