A violent act on a playground between two middle school boys is all that’s needed to launch into Carnage, the cinematic adaptation of a Tony Award winning play about two sets of parents who are brought together to work through a situation their children have forced them into.
Directed by Oscar-winner Roman Polanski, Carnage is essentially a filmed play with four characters engaging in a rollercoaster ride of discussions about their children, their lives, their respective marriages, and a whole treasure trove of other related and unrelated topics. The film retains a feverish, almost manic, pitch and your ability to like this rests with how much vitriol, dialogue, and smarminess you can stomach from these four interesting, but slightly troubled, individuals.
Largely consisting of moving in and around the front room of a high-rise Brooklyn apartment (although all of the New York landscapes seen through the windows are CGI, since Polanski cannot set foot in the United States), Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) are having an uncomfortable meeting with Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz). The Longstreets’ son, Ethan, was smashed in the face by the Cowan’s son, Zachary, with a stick so hard that Ethan is having to endure reconstructive dental surgery to correct the damage. Simple, right? The Longstreets draw up an agreement of sorts, and the Cowans are open to the idea of discussing the situation.
Everyone is on guard and that is where Carnage takes flight…for awhile. Jodie Foster is as tightly wound as anyone I have seen on screen in recent memory and she has an infinitesimal amount of patience with this situation. John C. Reilly’s Michael is more affable and inviting, quickly realizing that right from the get-go, the Longstreets and the Cowans are having difficulty getting along. Lauding his wife to get The Peach Cobbler, he desperately tries to keep things at ease for all involved.
Visibly unnerved are Nancy and Alan Cowan, with Kate Winslet wearing her aggravation on every inch of her face and body and Christoph Waltz’s Alan taking cell phone call after cell phone call, trying to manage a potentially awful public relations disaster for one of his wealthiest corporate clients. And on it goes. The Longstreets make a point and anger the Cowans. The Cowans get upset and respond. Then, the Cowans attempt to leave and at one point, even make it out into the hallway – only to have a comment made by the Longstreets march them right back into the apartment to have it out one last time.
But what are they truly arguing about? Why do we want to endure this? Before the film wraps up, hamsters, internationally acquired Scotch, the most embarrassing of situations, out-of-print coffee-table art books, kitchen accessories, and a whole host of other topics get run through the ringer, debated, argued, and speculated upon. And like these characters, it is easy to get swept up in forgetting that two boys had an altercation and their parents are supposed to be figuring out how to move lives forward here.
Largely I enjoyed Carnage for the brilliant performances and escalating ridiculousness which unfolds, as Nancy and Alan and Penelope and Michael unwittingly engage in a constant game of oneupsmanship, all of which is rendered useless by two brilliant images Polanski closes out his film with. And yet I never really engaged with these folks emotionally. I suppose the most obvious demerit you can assign Carnage is that it is flat out insufferable listening to four 40-ish, rich New Yorkers bicker and argue and drink for the entire film. Honestly, if that is how you respond, I cannot fault you for that in the slightest. For me, however, this all worked better than I expected, at least for awhile, and with the barbs increasing in precision and penetrability, I found myself laughing out loud quite often. Foster laughably falls into tears a number of times, Waltz is pitch-perfect and exceptionally unctuous, while Reilly “Awww Shucks!” his way through much of the conversation, while Winslet has an unfortunate but memorable encounter with the Cowans’ cobbler.
When marital alliances are dropped and gender alliances are created, Carnage, as a film, springs a bit of a leak and starts to grind and grate a bit. I imagine on stage, however, this is where Carnage would hit another level, find a new gear. Perhaps, Carnage as a film does not sustain itself all the way through because without having the expanse of the stage, the film becomes almost too suffocating, too stifling to really embrace and champion. With incredible and astute work turned in by these four Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated actors (Reilly serving as the only non-Oscar winner in the cast), the film seems tired, spent, and even languid in getting us to the end of the conversation.
Carnage is a polarizing film but largely matter-of-fact. If you are a fan of the talent in the film, Carnage is worth a look for the 80 minutes it requires, as it is very easy to get roped up in the fly-on-the-wall approach Polanski adopted for the big screen version of Yasmina Reza’s play. Then again, in this day and age, when people are looking for something a bit more joyful and less stress inducing, I can see Carnage landing with a thud just as easily for some interested viewers. How much you are willing to take will likely define your assessment of the Carnage laid out before you.