Just in time for the wide release of Carnage today, Chris Vognar from the Dallas Morning News has released a video comparing and contrasting Hans Landa versus Alan Cowan, the character that Mr. Waltz plays in Carnage.
While it is known that Mr. Waltz hesitates to compare his performances from each other, I feel that Vognar had some valid points which echoed my own sentiments – Cowan is a very reptilian, slithering, shifting character. The only one of the four who remains composed throughout except when it comes to losing his possessions (versus emotional upset with the situation at hand, of which he is indifferent.) Carnage is sure to delight all fans of Waltz who have been waiting for a role to truly highlight his talents again.
However, where my opinion differs from Mr. Vognar, is that, despite both performances holding a subtle, nuanced, polished menace, Cowan is a shark without a prey in this film. He toys with each of the people in the room but ultimately does not latch into the jugular of any one. The role, and ultimately the performance is tempered by a lack of “the kill”, the feeling of the interminable loop the characters are caught up in, that there will be no come-uppance, no resolution. The arguments between them could continue to go on without end. In that, Cowan is fundamentally unlike Landa and thus the performance of Cowan, while cold and indifferent and polished, lacked the very nuanced calculation of Landa which was always clearly working in his mind.
It is obvious in the first 20 minutes, the descent into Hell of Perrier LaPadite, and then in subsequent meetings with Landa, Waltz’s performance belied the constantly analyzing, calculating, critical nature of the character. It was visible through a slight twitch, or muscle shift, that Landa had something going on and was always playing the board several moves ahead. Cowan was not engaged in this level of disciplined concentration. The role simply did not demand it. Quite the contrary, the role demanded a distracted annoyance, of which Waltz excelled in delivering. Therefore to compare the two characters, you can bring in the role of August Rosenbluth – where Waltz, again, portrays the charming, smooth, polished cold type of role, but this time as a man on the edge of losing everything he holds dear. Or as Richelieu in the Three Musketeers where he must retain his composure in the face of incompetence while scheming in the background. All of these roles could theoretically be called facets of Landa but to hold every role that Waltz plays from here on out to the benchmark of Landa is doing him and his work a vast disservice. These roles simply do not demand what Landa demanded. It is likely he will never play another role that demands what Landa required.
It would, of course, be preferable if Mr. Waltz’s work was not compared to Landa, which has gone down in history as one of the best performances ever delivered, and instead judged on their own merit in the place of the piece as a whole. In that aspect, a clearer picture of Waltz’s performance and work can be assessed and judged on its’ own merit in the context of the work, and not up against a benchmark that would be impossibly high for anyone to ever hit again.