By Ezra Stead
Carnage, France / Germany / Poland / Spain, 2011
Directed by Roman Polanski
We Need to Talk About Kevin, UK / USA, 2011
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
The title of this piece is obviously a joke, as I have no concrete evidence to support the idea that the excellent actor John C. Reilly actually hates children. However, being born the fifth of six children and having now fathered two of his own, he undoubtedly related to some of the sentiments expressed in his two latest films, Roman Polanski’s Carnage and Lynn Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, both of which provide starkly different perspectives on why it just might not be such a great idea to have kids. Carnage is very funny, while Kevin is dark, dark, dark – but the underlying insights about human nature in both are decidedly bleak and brutal, regardless of whether they are cushioned by humor or not.
Carnage is essentially a filmed version of Yasmina Reza’s play, The God of Carnage, from which it was adapted for the screen by Reza and Polanski. This means that it is carried more by the sharp, witty dialogue and strong performances more than anything else. Outside of bookending scenes shot at a playground in Central Park, the entirety of the 80-minute film takes place in the Brooklyn apartment of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly and the relatively reclusive Jodie Foster). Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) are the parents of Zachary (Elvis Polanski), who is the antagonist in the playground squabble that begins the film, hitting Michael and Penelope’s son Ethan (Eliot Berger) in the face with a stick and damaging two of his teeth. We first encounter Nancy and Alan on their way out the door, having reached some sort of tenuous agreement about what must be done to solve this crisis in the most civilized manner possible, but various instigations of politeness and passive-aggressive pugilism keep them returning to the confines of the apartment, unable to put an end to the vicious social gamesmanship. Had he lived to see it, Luis Bunuel would undoubtedly have found this film very pleasing; I certainly did.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a much more disturbing and expansive look at the terrible tolls of parenting, and whereas Carnage primarily explores the parents’ perspective and leaves the children’s world separate and unaffected, Kevin is very much about the influence parents can have on their children, whether intended or not. In its realistic take on the familiar horror trope of the “bad seed,” or evil child (not to be confused with the possessed or demonic child of The Exorcist or The Omen), this film recalls George Ratliff’s Joshua (2007), one of the most unabashedly anti-family films since Joseph Ruben’s classic thriller The Stepfather (1987). Like the baby Joshua in that film, little Kevin is a source of constant torment for his mother, Eva (the great Tilda Swinton), right from the moment he is born. Unlike Joshua, though, his incessant crying and generally antagonistic demeanor seems to be reserved entirely for his mother; when his father, Franklin (Reilly) holds him as a baby, his crying stops, only to return with a vengeance as soon as Eva comes near. This basic attitude continues through his toddler years and all the way up until he is a teenager (when he is played by Ezra Miller, star of Antonio Campos’s very unsettling Afterschool).
The story of Kevin is told in a compellingly non-linear fashion, with Ramsay’s visual style complementing this approach in such a way that the viewer is immersed in Eva’s perspective, the past blending with the present in a dreamlike haze. This method and style of storytelling recalls no recent film more than Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, which similarly dealt with a character struggling to come to terms with a traumatic, violent past. Perhaps because of this specific perspective, which is Eva’s, it is difficult not to identify and sympathize with her, first and foremost. Regardless what truths about her relationship with Kevin and the level of culpability she shares in his horrific deeds – which are wisely shown mostly in brief glimpses – the Kevin we are shown is undoubtedly a cold, calculating, vicious monster. The very disquieting question left bubbling under the surface is how much of his monstrosity is simply a reflection of his mother’s feelings toward him; she never wanted a child, was happier without him, so he makes it his life’s mission to make her truly regret ever giving him life.
It is no great feat for Carnage to be the lighter of these two films, since it is, after all, a comedy, but I hasten to reiterate what a truly dark comedy it is. There is a fierce, boiling rage under the surface of the two wealthy, civilized couples in the film, and as they continually strive to assert their moral dominance over one another, the teams change and new bonds and enmities are formed based on gender lines, intellectual biases and political beliefs. The supposedly grown up protagonists of both films are far more confused and volatile than their own children, and perhaps it is their bitterness at having forever lost that far simpler time in their own lives that makes them resent the wee ones. Dealing with the familiar frustrations and indignities of being a parent (both films prominently feature pet hamsters and the cleaning up of vomit), it is amazing that anyone, parent or child, manages to live with a modicum of sanity or civilization.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.