Carnage (2011) ★★★★
Dir: Roman Polanski, Fr/Ger/Spa/Pol, 80mins
Cast: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christolph Waltz,Kate Winslet
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage revolves on the slimmest of premises. Set in New York, the opening credits scene depicts a group of boys in a park where a dispute unravels and one hits the other with a stick. Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) agree to meet at the Brooklyn apartment of Michael and Penelope Longsteet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), both parties determined to arrive at an amicable solution for the incident between their offspring. Nancy’s early rationalisation that “So many parents just take their kids side, acting like children themselves” proves horribly prophetic as conversation expands beyond the topic in question and battle lines are drawn.
Polanski is best known for dark, labyrinthine dramas. In his most recognised work, Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), the lead characters become entangled in plots riddled with ambiguous characters pulling the strings in the background for their own agendas. It is only in the final scene of each, when all is lost, that both lead and viewer fully realise the ramifications of what has been sown. However, a comedic streak has surfaced in the Polanski oeuvre on occasion. Offbeat thriller Cul De Sac (1965) displays a healthy dose of surrealist humour and gem oddity The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is an affectionate homage to Hammer horror films with additional moments of slapstick.
Carnage falls into the bracket of social satire. The core of the film presents two contrasting middle class ideologies and teases out the hypocrisies inherent in each. The Longstreet’s are on a modest income (door to door sales man and shop assistant) with a leftie leaning and strong belief in family values. The Cowan’s are high flyers (attorney and investment broker) focused solely on their careers, the addition of a child to their lives seeming like an accident neither wished had happened. Polanski judges neither and as the situation is played out the two couples verbally hang themselves. Once a bottle of whiskey is introduced we truly see the void beneath the facade.
Naturally for a film set in such a microcosm performances are key. Waltz and Foster come out best here, probably because they are the two antagonists. Waltz’s Alan is glued to his phone which creates social awkwardness for all. Through snippets of conversation we learn that he is attempting to hatch a plan of defence for a dodgy pharmaceutical company (we later learn that Michael’s mother is on said medication) and this becomes a mini plot in itself. Waltz plays Alan with an air of utter disinterest, a man who has been dragged along under duress and who only perks up when he can acerbically nail Penelope’s argument to the wall.
Foster’s Penelope is a more complex case. She has artistic ambitions that have never really been fulfilled and subsequently has created a quasi-bohemian existence to compensate. She uses her stance as a veil to take the moral high ground only for it to backfire and expose frailty’s that exist in her marriage. This is a delicate tightrope to walk but one Foster navigates superbly. Out of all the characters her’s is the one that goes through the most turmoil, her calm reasoning moving through to anger and finally self loathing.
As Michael it is satisfying to see Reilly cast off the shackles of dominated husband at the halfway point, a role he seems to have made his stock trade in films such as The Good Girl (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). Initially he acts as peacemaker but snaps eventually, a square peg forced into a round hole who has been living a lie. In a film which pushes the envelope with histrionics Winslet’s feel the most forced and she has less to work with, although one scene involving the messy desecration of some Francis Bacon coffee table books is something to behold.
Carnage does amount to very little. Anyone who watches this thinking it will be an epic philosophical battle arriving at some grand statement will be gravely disappointed. This is more akin to Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party (1977) whereby it teases out a critique through characterisation. Maybe Carnage is not as cutting or astute as it thinks it is, more light and frothy, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome and is highly amusing.