Relesse Date: March 1
I’ve never really appreciated the suggestion that the two topics you shouldn’t bring up at dinner are religion and politics. I think this polite exclusion existed for previous generations because those topics were considered to sail too close to personal identity to suffer any real criticism. However we seem to live in a society that’s both post-faith and post-ideology, and for precisely that reason religion and politics are now some of the safest subjects. Few people are offended by topics they care nothing about. No, if you really want to start a conversation that strikes at the heart of a person, talk to them about their parenting.
Carnage’s opening titles roll over a wide-shot of a New York park where boys are playing in the background. You can’t hear their words but it’s clear an argument is developing. The situation escalates and one boy hits the other in the mouth with a stick. The credits end and we find ourselves in the company of two sets of parents dealing with the aftermath. Jodie Foster is Penelope, a highly organized mother with a keen sense of social justice; John C. Reilly her peace-making husband, Michael. Their son Ethan lost two teeth to the altercation. Kate Winselt plays the perfectly poised Nancy, housewife of the Blackberry-packing, corporate lawyer Alan (Christoph Waltz). Their son Zachary dealt the blow. But there’s apparently no acrimony; these civilized parents have come to a civilized solution. That is, until Penelope makes a passing reflection on Nancy and Alan’s parenting:
“We told Ethan that if we were this boy’s parents, we would want to know.”
It’s just a snowflake’s worth of inflection, but it’s enough to set in motion an avalanche of emotion. The couples first needle, then poke and finally club their opposites and their partners with their parenting positions.
Parenting is emotionally fraught territory. Any mum or dad who has considered their responsibilities for more than a second becomes aware of a serious pressure. They can’t just be healthy, they have to be confident, artistic, athletic, intellectual, musical … the list goes on. We sense we’re supposed to be producing not just adults but balanced human beings. The problem lies in defining what that means. Even couples can’t agree as Carnage demonstrates when Nancy reveals her son Zachary hit Ethan because he wouldn’t let him join his gang:
Penelope: “Did you know Ethan had a gang?”
Michael: “No, but I’m thrilled to hear it.”
Michael: “Because I had a gang. When I was the leader I beat up Jimmy Leech in a fair fight.”
Nancy: “How is that any different?”
Alan: “There is no difference.”
Michael: “There is. We agreed to fight.”
Where one parent sees violence and the end of civilization, the other sees strength and the development of masculinity. Neither can convince the other because in this postmodern age one opinion is as valid as another. Carnage descends into chaos and ends with an admission we’re all wrong, because no one can point to a standard that is self-evidently correct.
And so we arrive at the problem at the heart of modern parenting. It’s not a joke when mums and dads tell each other, “We’re making it up as we go along.” So long as we parent without an external standard we’re doomed to parent in the dark. Christians refer to God as our Heavenly Father not because He is like a cosmic dad, but because it’s from Him we draw our idea of what a parent should be. The Bible may not have a verse for every childhood crisis but it does present us with the goal that gives mums and dads direction.