Director: Roman Polanski, 2011. (R)
We all remember middle-school: name-calling, bullying, shifting alliances. This movie centers on these, but it is the four adult protagonists that display these juvenile traits, not the children. And the carnage of the title is not the violence of the boys, but the verbal violence of the parents.
The film opens with a scene in New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, where one boy hits another boy across the face with a large stick, breaking two teeth and leaving him injured. But it is their parents who come center stage in this play-turned movie. Like the play, all the action takes place in one of their homes, an expensive condo in Manhattan. Polanski's earlier film Repulsion exuded a pschological claustrophobia, with its protagonist trapped in her apartment, but here he brings a cultured claustrophobic feel. Yet we still seem trapped like the two couples as their social interaction degenerates into cutting and vicious criticism.
The Longstreets, Penelope (Jodie Foster, The Brave One) and Michael (John C. Reilly, The Gangs of New York), are the parents of the victim, and they invite the Cowans, Nancy (Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road) and Alan (Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds), parents of the attacker, to work through the incident in a civilized manner. After they formulate a letter, they are all done until Penelope and Michael want to discuss in more detail
At first, the two couples are superficially friendly and socially accepting. Polite discourse over coffee and cobbler ensues. But as the conversation progresses, the couples begin to drop their guard until they lose it, literally. When Nancy throws up over the coffee table and Penelope’s precious art books, long out of print, the gloves come off. Verbal jousting begins. And while the two couples face off against one another initially, as alcohol enters the picture, the couples degenerate into individuals, fighting anyone who is near. Finally, gender lines are drawn, as the men sit together drinking single malt whisky pouring disdain on the women.
The performances are stellar, even if the plot ends suddenly. Each main actor has terrific dialog to work with, and brings the character to life. They are all different. Penelope represents the liberal do-gooder, whose theoretical commitment to Dufur is trumped by Alan’s experiential put-downs. But when push comes to shove, and vomit hits her books, she is as consumerist as the next Manhattanite. Michael is the average working man, who wants to keep the peace, and pours oil onto the conversation until he is belittled for his work by lawyer Alan. Alan, in turn, is a workaholic glued to his cell phone. Everything takes second fiddle to this omnipresent device. All conversations get put on hold when his cell rings. And when Nancy drops it in the vase, he is useless, reduced to sitting aimlessly on the floor. And there is Nancy, a professional woman whose marriage is a sham, a facade, and who desperately wants more out of her family relationships.
The underlying theme of the film is social hypocrisy. We put on a face to the world, even to our own family at times. These masks hide our true selves. When confronted with others, we go through the motions of social expectation, saying the right thing until we are stretched to the breaking point. When that happens, the mask falls off and the inner personality emerges ready to fight and defend, like a mama bear protecting its cubs.
Hypocrisy comes from the Greek word for play-acting on a stage, where the actors wore masks to hide behind. Jesus scathingly berates those who practice hypocrisy: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Matt. 23:13). He repeats this verbal attack multiple times, and warns his disciples, ““Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Lk. 12:1). Hypocrisy in all its forms is a form of sin that must be avoided.
Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs