Carnage *** ½
Directed by: Roman Polanski.
Written by: Yasmina Reza & Roman Polanski based on the play by Resa.
Starring: Jodie Foster (Penelope Longstreet), Kate Winslet (Nancy Cowan), Christoph Waltz (Alan Cowan), John C. Reilly (Michael Longstreet).
Roman Polanski’s Carnage is one of the director’s most playful films. This isn’t as serious as much of the director’s work, doesn’t tap into that paranoia that Polanski is able to bring out like few other directors in history. And yet, it is still very much a Roman Polanski film. It is about that thin visage of civility that we all present to the outside world, and how quickly it can fade away when we’re challenged. Everyone has hatred and bile inside of them just waiting for a chance to come to the surface.
Other than brief shots that open and close the movie, everything here happens inside a Brooklyn apartment, where two couples meet to discuss a violent incident between their sons. The boys were in the park, an argument started, and one boy picked up a stick and hit the other one. Now the parents are getting involved to try and talk things through – like civilized adults.
The parents of the “victim” are Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), a middle class, seemingly liberal couple, who don’t want to get lawyers or police involved, but just want to talk things through. The parents of the “aggressor” are Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), who are clearly wealthier than the other couple, she a broker, he a lawyer constantly answering the phone to try and defuse a potential class action lawsuit against one of his big clients – a pharmaceutical company.
It’s clear from the beginning that Alan doesn’t want to be there. He thinks the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, and he doesn’t take it very seriously. Nancy is at least pretending to care, saying all the right things about how sorry she is about what happened. For their part, Michael is just trying to keep the peace between everyone. Penelope on the other hand is trying hard to suppress her rage. Her son has been maimed, and no one seems to care! And yet everyone is polite to each other right up until Nancy vomits up Penelope’s peach and apple cobbler. The accusations start flying, and the whole affair devolves into some sort of chaos. So much for all that civility.
Carnage is not a particularly deep movie. It is a comedy first and foremost, and reminded me of the films of Luis Bunuel – something like The Exterminating Angel about a group of people who come to the rich house for dinner, and then find they cannot leave, the whole thing eventually devolving into people expressing their most basic, basest instincts, desires and bodily functions. Carnage has the same sort of message about how thin the line is between civility and chaos. Polanski seems to be playing around, not just with Bunuel’s film, but his own. I couldn’t help but think of his debut film, Knife in the Water, which was also a film with only one set (a boat) and the competition between the classes. That film was better – deeper, more violent, as the civility breaks down even further. It seemed to me that everyone involved in Carnage were simply doing it for a lark. That’s not a shot at the film at all. After all, it takes immense skill on Polanski’s part to take a short, one stage play (by Yasmina Reza who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski) and make it into a film that doesn’t just look like a photographed play, but a film. And Polanski – perhaps because he has experience in working with single settings (not just Knife in the Water, but the apartments in Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant, and the setting of Death and the Maiden).
And not enough can be said of the performances. Jodie Foster kills it – giving her best performance in years as Penelope, the liberal do-gooder, who finally breaks down and sinks to the level of the rest of them. Kate Winslet starts off a little reserved, but by the end she has gone as nuts as the rest of them. Christoph Waltz is an asshole from the start, and simply becomes more of one, but you cannot help but love it when as he rips into his dialogue. My favorite may well have been John C. Reilly, who seems like such a cheerful guy on the surface, but finds it harder and harder to keep on that cheerful face – especially when he’s called out for his act of hamster murder.
Carnage may well have been made as a lark for all involved, but the result is this well written, directed and acted, it really is hard to complain about it. This is a popcorn movie for intelligent adults.