There is something painful and true in the way the four key players of Roman Polanski’s Carnage dance around each other in pleasant niceties, going through the motions of civility, only to ultimately turn on one another in such a horrifying sound and fury. It is a human rhythm so intrinsically understood that the balance and soul of this film feels all at once in step with the audience’s inner instincts, yet totally perplexing in its brashness with the cruelty of the human spirit.
Based on Yasmina Reza’s Tony award-winning play God of Carnage, Polanski’s giddy adaptation tells the story of two New York couples meeting to discuss a schoolyard fight between their two sons. In their spacious Brooklyn apartment, the Longstreets play host to the Cowans in order to liberally resolve their sons’ unfortunate run-in; the Cowan’s son Zachary hit the Longstreet’s son Ethan across the face with a stick, knocking out a few teeth and setting the ball rolling for some awkward parental interference.
Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), a writer working on a book about the Darfur genocide, is quick with the gentle niceties of liberal conflict resolution, but clearly feels a sense of moral high-ground in the matter, as her son was on the receiving end of the stick, and the Cowans are a metropolitan cliché that she feels she has ethically mastered. Her husband, the illusory easy-going Michael (John C. Reilly) is kindly accommodating, but his veil of civility is fleeting and his disguise comes off with too much press. The Cowans, morally and physically trapped by social pleasantries and an issue with the psuedo-civility of the Longstreets, are clearly from the other side of the bridge. Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) is a pharmaceutical executive wrapped up in some sort of legal crisis with one of his company’s drugs. The constant vibrating of his cell phone feels also to be the buzz of his wife, Nancy’s (Kate Winslet) contempt for his lack of attention for the matter at hand. The Cowans are all business and ready to leave, but the perceived unbalanced hierarchy of the Brooklyn liberals against the Upper East Side financiers proves too high a coterial hill to climb; the four are confined to the claustrophobic, tulip-filled apartment to shed their badinage, and pick and pull at each other until each one comes undone.
Much like John Patrick Shanley’s film adaptation of his play Doubt, Carnage operates best when its actors are left to play out the script and their considerable talents without the flourish and the whirl of too many film smoke and mirrors. Polanski understands this, and allows his camera to be a fly on the wall, not intruding or suggesting a tendency or partiality with an emotional close-up or heartfelt montage. He allows the camera to experience the ridiculous, funny, exhausting human drama, just as the naked eye would.
However, unlike Shanley’s masterful adaptation, Reza and Polanski’s adapted work feels somewhat forced when translated to the screen. Some of the phrasing, awkwardly poetic and self-aware, would feel far less obscure in a New York playhouse. However, the considerable talents of the well-hired cast are the ultimate saving grace. Jodie Foster feels manic, squeamish, and forcefully obsessed as Penelope. We know this person, so thoroughly concerned with moral injustice that this conflict, to her, is akin to the African massacre she muses about in her book. John C. Reilly, who makes the most obvious shift from politeness to petulance, is immediately recognizable as the doting husband who merely puts it on for the big city yuppies. His calmness, kindness, and coolness in front of the camera is jovial and deceptive. This is one of the strongest performances of Reilly’s considerable career.
Christoph Waltz’s Alan, the slick, fast-talking pharmaceutical executive with a perceived lack of conscience, is perhaps consistently throughout the film the most true to his character’s inner self. Therefore, his shift is far less broad and feels the most natural as he hones in to verbally bitch-slap Penelope, or to rhetorically belittle Michael for his practical work as a salesman. His wife, horrified and nauseous, is played to scale by the masterful Kate Winslet. We feel her unrest with her husband’s vibrating career, and sense her defensiveness at the rose-colour judgement being offered by the Longstreets, be it in a piece of cobbler or the careful wording of a letter. Winslet is one of the greatest actresses of our generation and she is in fine form in Polanski’s human disaster of epic proportions.
Still, there is a sense of insecurity and superficiality to Carnage. The actors’ dutiful and fine labor to transmit some authenticity to their performances feels ultimately overshadowed by the overall smugness of each character’s caricature. These people are archetypes – familiar ones, but archetypes nonetheless. There is something inauthentic about the beautiful apartment that a writer and a salesman could never afford, even in Brooklyn. There is something too easy about the slick, moneyed Republicans having the son who would beat the granola’d, free loving Liberals kid to a pulp. There is just a convenience and a calculation about a class issue between two Western prototypes; the bleeding heart of the Left and the iron hand of the Right. Perhaps the stereotype is true, but the script in Carnage is not masterful enough to avoid spewing a stereotype-filled conscience.
As far as its Oscar future goes, the award star power of such a decorated cast can perhaps not be denied. Both Winslet and Foster have received Golden Globe nominations and I feel perhaps these nominations will ring true for the Academy Awards nominations. I feel Polanski’s work was well-mannered, but ultimately undeserving of a Best Director nod. The picture is strong, but is easily outmatched by many other films this year. It is doubtful that Carnage will receive one of the 5-10 Best Picture nominations, but still entirely possible. Besides, if I’ve learned anything over the last few years it’s never rule out Polanski.
Will you be seeing Carnage? Are you a fan of the play? Drop me a line in the comments section.