Based on a stage play (“Le Dieu du Carnage” by Yasmina Reza, originally performed in Paris, but also in London and on Broadway), featuring a single room location, four characters and events taking place over the course of 80 minutes in real-time, Carnage is something of a change of pace for director Roman Polanski. There are certainly elements in the film that you could tenuously relate to the director’s past work – a stripping away of the façade of social respectability to the rotten core underneath could be seen to be common with Chinatown as much as Polanski’s most recent film The Ghost – but while there is a distinct comic tone to the dispute that arises between two couples who meet to settle their differences over an incident involving their children, that doesn’t mean that the underlying natures it reveals are any less bitter.
Adapting a stage-play to the screen and making it involving as a film nonetheless represents something of a challenge for the director, and it’s undoubtedly this challenge that inspired Polanski just as much as his enjoyment of the material, and it’s one that he rises to well. While there is always the possibility of opening out the drama, inserting flashbacks or seeking to provide explanatory illustrations of the nature of the characters, Polanski trusts in the script itself and in the performances of the actors to be more than enough, and it’s a decision that – along with a relatively short running time perfectly calculated not to run beyond the point that you can’t bear to be in the room with these four people any longer – proves to be well-considered.
The entire film consisting of four actors sitting and talking to each other over the course of the entire length of a film you might be mistaken for thinking that Carnage is a sophisticated battle of wits. In fact, that’s precisely the mistake that the two couples Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) and Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) make, when the Cowans are invited over to the Brooklyn apartment of the Longstreets to discuss how to handle an unfortunate playground incident where the Cowans’ son whacked the Longstreets’ with a stick, resulting in the loss of a couple of teeth. Believing that the matter can be resolved amicably between responsible adults, the two sets of parents initially seem to be on the same page, recognising the incident for what it is, but it doesn’t take too long for the surface politeness and sociability to break down.
Initially there are some minor differences between a busy power couple and an arty liberal one over respective views on parenting, on the adopting of a hands-on or hands-off approach to raising children and in how to administer discipline, but it soon becomes clear that for all the apparent differences between the two couples, fundamentally, the middle-class values that each of them profess to live by and exhibit to others are nothing more than window-dressing to cover over their own egotistical, selfish impulses, the inadequacies in their own personalities and in the flaws in their marriages. Aided by a few drinks of vintage scotch (which in itself is about projecting a certain type of sophistication when ultimately it has the same effect of just getting you drunk), each of them soon revert to base archetypes and the kind of behavior exhibited by their children that they are supposed to abhor.
Carnage is not a particularly sophisticated film then, it’s not particularly subtle, but it is very amusing and it does make some relevant points. It’s also exceptionally well-played by the well-rehearsed cast, who have clearly though their characters and are able to reveal telling little details about them in their tone of voice and expression. Everyone is delightful to watch, and there’s a good sense of comic timing in their interaction.
I’m not sure how the central incident of the children would have been portrayed on the stage, but, framing the film’s beginning and ending with distanced views of the children in question – the only scenes that take place outside the apartment – Polanski effectively manages to put what has just taken place satisfyingly into context. Even without the coda however, the systematic disintegration of social appearances is masterfully laid-out in real-time until that point of hitting rock-bottom realisation is reached. If the arrival at that low-point seems a little precipitated and exaggerated, the fact that it has even taken seventy-nine minutes to get there says a lot about the nature of the barriers they’ve each raised around themselves. I’m sure, like myself, you’ll have witnessed similar situations where those outward appearances of civilised behavior have been dropped an awful lot sooner.