Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing: ‘Poetry’ & ‘Carnage’

Ah, bad kids. Where would the movies be without them?

From ghostly dead youngsters in The Ring and The Shining to the bloodthirsty (but still breathing) tykes of The Bad Seed and The Good Son, there’s a long-standing storytelling tradition in Hollywood to use sinister children as the Ultimate Evildoers — the juxtaposition between innocent faces and malicious intent gets us cinematically wet, I guess.

Recently (“ripped from the headlines” in Law & Order fashion), the movies have added a subgenre to this category with school shootings, like the current release We Need To Talk About Kevin. That’s not a horror movie, per se, but it does deal with a mother’s horrified reaction to the bad, bad thing her baby did.

Two other 2011 movies dealt with parental reactions to childhood transgressions, using appropriately varying methods —Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry and Carnage from Roman Polanski (no stranger to the notion of devilish tots, as he directed Rosemary’s Baby). Neither child does anything quite as alarming as a school shooting (one isn’t too far off, though); in Carnage, the incident is so minor it is almost a joke when compared to how deadly serious the parents’ reactions are. But at the heart of both films is the responsibility a guardian takes on when their offspring is behind some wrongdoing.Based on Yasmine Reza’s acclaimed play God Of Carnage (which itself starred a formidable roster of talent when it opened on Broadway with Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden), Carnage stars such Oscar-friendly faces as Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, and Christoph Waltz. (Only one of them hasn’t won an Oscar; all have been nominated.) The premise is as simple as can be — two adult couples meet up to discuss an “incident” involving their sons during which one boy was not-too-severely injured. What begins as a polite, if forced, exchange gradually unravels to reveal all four of these grown-ups exhibiting their very worst behavior.

As you may expect from such a story, Carnage is a lot of fun. Well, it’s a lot of fun if you like sensationally talented movie stars stuck in a room together acting their pants off. And I do. Carnage is a close cousin to Closer, which also starred four phenomenal actors and showcased a broad range of emotions as their alliances shifted and their animal instincts came out to play. But Closer was quite a bit more cinematic, believe it or not. Carnage makes only the most rudimentary of efforts to be an actual movie — it unfolds in real time, like the play, in one location (an apartment). It is perhaps not wholly inevitable that this material would feel stagey, but it does. Polanski doesn’t seem to be trying to make this anything more than filmed theater. If that’s not your thing, then neither is Carnage.

Carnage is, in fact, my thing — to an extent. I don’t need every moment in Carnage to feel believable, which is good, because it doesn’t. It’s all very heightened, and the movie’s weakest link is that it keeps trying to get us out of that apartment. It has the visiting couple, Alan and Nancy (Waltz and Winslet), putting their coats on many times, and on numerous occasions actually making it all the way out to the elevator before something pulls them back in. (Usually, that “something” is merely an offer of more coffee, and it’s a bit of a stretch to buy that it would keep being offered and accepted if these four hate each other so.) I suppose all this in-and-out and putting on coats is meant to create a sense of movement and conflict, but it’s actually more frustrating to almost change location so many times. It would feel more natural if they were just seated, trapped with no way out. Why bother teasing us, Polanski? Anyone seeing Carnage should know we’re in this apartment for the long haul. (Well, the haul is actually a brisk 79 minutes.)

That claustrophobia aside, Carnage shines as a showcase for all four actors, primarily Foster and Winslet. The boys each have a moment or two in the spotlight, but their characters, as written, feel more like “types” than flesh-and-blood people, and you can on occasion see them acting. (In their defense, God Of Carnage is a tricky thing to pull off 100% believably, on stage or screen.) Alan is a smug jackass who won’t stop answering his cell phone and barking instructions to his clients and co-workers — and since this plays out in real time, remember, it’s about as cloying here as it would be in real life. Michael (Reilly) comes off a little better — at first — kind of a simple-minded teddy bear of a guy. But eventually (thanks in part to his implication in the demise of a hamster) he reveals his true colors. I won’t go so far as to claim these are one-note performances, because they’re certainly not bad — it’s just that, either these characters are more thinly written than the women, or there’s intentionally not that much to find interesting or redeeming about either of these guys.Not so with the ladies, though. Apart from maybe a line or two each that just can’t ring true in a movie (and, I suspect, didn’t on stage, either), both of them give flawless movie-sized performances that are simply mesmerizing. You can’t look away from either of them. I’m not sure if it was Reza’s (or Polanksi’s) intent to make all four characters equally despicable, but Penelope and Nancy are quite a bit more engaging and complex than their husbands, and more sympathetic, too. Winslet’s Nancy is reserved and a bit uptight, at least until she gets loudly and outrageously intoxicated off of scotch. (Kate Winslet doing drunk is just sublime.) Penelope, on the other hand, is self-righteous, judgmental, and also wound a bit too tightly; she becomes fond of tearfully airing her marital problems to their new “friends.” And it’s not just the Cowans vs. the Longstreets, either. One of the more interesting aspects of the play is the way allegiances shift; one moment, both wives will be in agreement on an issue in opposition to their husbands, then Penelope and Alan will find common ground against Nancy and Michael. And so on. There’s a wonderful moment when the couples are briefly separated, free to say what’s really on their mind regarding the other; so different from their cordial behavior when they’re all in the room together.

Needless to say, the discussion of the feud between their children is only an excuse to study the adults’ rather juvenile behavior, for none come away from the afternoon smelling too rosy. While many issues are raised about everything from marriage to parenting to the battle of the sexes to liberal problem-solving in Africa, Carnage‘s overall takeaway is very simple: civility is a ruse; deep down, we’re all savage children. It’s not a particularly moving or enlightening story. You should see it for the same reasons you’d see a play: to watch top-of-the-line actors going at it as theatrically as possible. It isn’t a movie.

(Interesting sidenote: the one sequence that actually feels cinematic is the centerpiece featuring Nancy explosively vomiting, along with the aftermath. What that says about movies versus theater, I’ll leave you to suss out for yourself.)

A more poignant reflection on adult response to a minor’s transgressions is South Korea’s Poetry. The film opens with a dead girl floating face-down in a river, and when the title appears on screen, we know Poetry ain’t no dirty limerick — we’re about to witness a fairly sobering take on how “poetry” can be found in even the grimmest of subjects. From there, director Chang-dong Lee introduces us to Mija, a chipper, slightly dotty sexagenerian with a penchant for dressing in brightly-colored, mismatched patterns. She is raising her only grandson Wook on her own. (Her daughter left him behind for undisclosed reasons.) Soon we discover that Mija’s spacey ways may, in fact, be a sign of something more menacing — the beginnings of Alzheimer’s? How Mija reacts to that news internally, we don’t ever know. She doesn’t discuss it with anyone. All we are privy to is what she does — and that is plenty.

Mija enrolls herself in a local poetry class because once upon a time, her third grade teacher told her she’d be a poet someday. She takes up badminton as a way to get more exercise. She attends poetry readings. It’s possible she does all this because she knows her days as a sentient adult are numbered, and also possible that her actions are unrelated. We don’t know. More pressing matters arise when Mija learns she has a devastating connection to that dead girl in the river — she killed herself because she was repeatedly raped by six boys in her school. Mija’s grandson is one of those boys.

This set-up is strikingly similar to that employed by last year’s spell-binding Mother, also from South Korea. Both center on single mothers of a certain age who must answer for a child’s crime. But Poetry takes an altogether different route than Mother — less style, fewer genre elements, more slice-of-life. But both are equally gripping.

As in Carnage, the parents of all the boys gather to meet to decide what should be done — five fathers and one flighty grandmother. They decide they’ll pay the victim’s family a sum of money in exchange for keeping it mum, so the boys’ future isn’t jeaopardized. It’s unclear how much of this is merely a cultural divide between South Korean and American values, and how unusual this situation would be in this society. No one seems particularly outraged by what happened, and letting the boys be punished for their wrongdoing is never mentioned as an alternative. Is paying for a victim’s silence as commonplace in South Korea as Poetry would make it seem?

The story we’re following is Mija’s, though, and it’s her pain and anguish over what Wook has done that we’re concerned with, rather than the judicial outcome. Mija continues her study of poetry, but we can tell there’s something brewing beneath the surface. She’s deeply disturbed by what has happened, even if outwardly, she comes across as more less unchanged. We may want her to unravel for dramatic purposes, but she remains composed. One of the saddest things about this story is that no one seems to notice or care how difficult this must be for her — particularly not her grandson. Only we do. Young Wook is one of the most useless, spoiled, and irredeemable teenagers in recent memory, showing no remorse (or any emotions, for that matter) regarding his hand in the death of this girl. Yet this character feels tragically real. What’s also scary is that he and his friends appear so harmless and juvenile — it’s hard to imagine them committing such a violent offense. But it’s hard for Mija to imagine, too. We’re right there with her every step of the way, seeing only what she sees.As Mija, Jeong-hie Yun is, in a word, perfect. It’s hard to remember that she is only an actress playing this character, and that Mija is not a real person we have been lucky enough to meet. There is such a natural quality to her presence, a grandmotherly warmth that causes us to feel protective of her the way we would if she were our own. We feel concern for her during many instances in which we wonder if Mija’s gotten in over her head — does she fully understand what’s happening? Like our own aging family members, we are acutely aware that Mija may start losing her marbles any day now, and we’re terrified for her. But we also respect her, particularly when it comes to her quest to find beauty in the world amidst all the ugliness that has suddenly flooded in at her. Poetry also boasts the saddest sex scene I can recall ever seeing, along with one of the most quietly shattering endings I’ve witnessed all year. (I hate to overuse those critical buzzwords, but there it is. Shattering.)

A word of warning to viewers: Poetry is an understated film, and not a particularly plot-driven one. It takes as much time as it wants to tell its tale, in no hurry to move forward. But it’s never boring. (Trust me. I often get bored with films that are a little too lyrical.) Like Mija, we are urged to slow down, take a look at the world presented to us, and truly process it — then, find whatever poetry we can in it. (I know. It sounds boring.) Like any good poem, Poetry is open to interpretation and states nothing outright. It does not want you to think or feel any particular way about Mija or her grandson’s crime, so long as you do think and feel. You might rightly call Poetry a sad movie, even a heartbreaking one — but it never pushes you to respond that way. It also contains so much joy and beauty and humanity; I came away from it feeling not depressed, but in revery.

Poetry: It’s no haiku, but the film’s devastating grace and beauty are well worth the two-plus-hour running time.

Carnage: Great theatrical fun with juicy roles that Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster sink their teeth into.

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