Carnage: Caution, adults at play… no sympathy for The Devil

by Mark Burger

Carnage, which opens Friday, is Roman Polanski’s extremely well-acted screen version of Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage (original title: Le Dieu du carnage), as adapted by Reza and Polanski.

It should be no surprise that the caliber of acting is so high, given that the principal cast includes Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz — all in prime form.

Foster and Reilly play Penelope and Michael Longstreet, who have invited Nancy and Alan Cowan (Winslet and Waltz) to their apartment to discuss a recent altercation between their sons Ethan and Zachary. It’s all very civilized, with an increasing tendency toward cynicism.

Before too long — and it’s not very long at all, given that the film clocks in at a tidy 80 minutes — they’re trading recriminations and thinly veiled insults, escalating at times to full-scale verbal warfare, with spouses turning on each other as much as against the other couple. Watching this fabulous quartet of actors tear into these roles — and each other — is an unvarnished pleasure. These aren’t necessarily likable characters, but they’re hardly unbelievable ones.

It’s not difficult to see what drew Polanski to the material — no sentimentalist he — yet this is one of the few films in his long career to end on a note that could comparatively be called upbeat or hopeful.

Polanski takes little pains to open the play up, confining the film exclusively to the apartment and hallway, with only the beginning and end credits placed outdoors, in the park where the fateful encounter between the boys occurred. Similarly, Alexandre Desplat’s score is played only during the credits. Dean Tavoularis’ production design is customarily terrific.

An argument could be made that Polanski has simply filmed the play, albeit with a fresh cast of actors (none of whom appeared in any of the stage productions). Maybe so, but it’s a good play and Polanski doesn’t do wrong by it. It’s also more accessible and entertaining than his 1994 adaptation of the Ariel Dorfman play Death and the Maiden, which was likewise well-acted but slow-moving and pretentious. Carnage is a satire with wit and bite.

Award contenders notwithstanding, it’s a longheld tradition that January is a dumping ground for movies. The Devil Inside (zero stars) upholds, as it were, that tradition. This low-budget “foundfootage” horror film has already scared up big box office, which must be a result of good promotion. It certainly can’t be attributed to the quality of the film, or (in this case) the lack thereof.

Structured as a mock documentary, the film follows young Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade, who looks a bit like Jessica Alba) and her filmmaker friend Michael (Ionut Grama) as they seek her mother Maria (Suzan Crowley), who killed three members of the clergy — two priests and a nun, for those keeping score — during an exorcism gone wrong in 1989. Mysteriously, Maria was transferred to an asylum in Rome, a mere stone’s throw from the Vatican. (How convenient.)

At a meeting of what Isabella calls the Vatican School for Exorcism, she and Michael befriend a pair of priests (Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth), who apparently spend their free time conducting exorcisms not sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Cue the Satanic panic.

As it piles one ridiculous story point on top of another, this poorly conceived and poorly written film trots out all the trappings: High-pitched shrieking; shaky, hand-held camerawork; and bone-crunching contortions. The result is an unholy racket. An opening-credit disclaimer announces that the Vatican had nothing to do with the making of the film. Chalk one up for the Vatican, then.

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