Regardless of what you think of Roman Polanski’s new film “Carnage,” everyone can relate to it: Two married couples meet to discuss a playground fight that took place between their two kids, which inevitably leads to verbal warfare.
Now maybe you haven’t been in that exact situation (not all of us are parents) but we’ve all been involved in conversations that are awkward at the start and then turn ugly. What’s even worse is when you have to watch and listen to other people have a fight.
That’s the situation in “Carnage.” Except for two exterior scenes at the beginning and end the whole movie takes place within the apartment of one of the families. There are no or transitions, no establishing shots to let us catch our breath; we’re crammed in there for the duration of the movie. Its uncomfortable yes, but also exciting. “Carnage” is one of the most true to life movies I’ve seen all year. It’s also one of the funniest but it’s not screwball or raunchy, the humor comes from the simple truth that heated, malicious conversations can be funny.
The movie is based on a play called “The God of Carnage” by Yazmina Reza (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski). That should be obvious from the start. The structure of the movie is made for a play, and whether it is “My Dinner With Andre,” or “Carnage,” making a movie in real time is a challenge. As director, Polanski does surprisingly well with the little room he has. Making sure to move the camera around.
John C Reilly and Jody Foster play Michael and Penelope Longstreet, the mother and father of the victim child. Michael is a hardware store owner and Penelope is a cultured historian working on a book about Darfur. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play Nancy and Alan Cowan, the father and mother of the attacker. Nancy is a working mom and Alan is an executive of some pharmaceutical company.
When we first see them in the Longstreet’s apartment, the movie appears to be over. The couples have come to some kind of conclusion and now they are writing up the incident in a newsletter. However, their problems have yet to begin. In an allusion to Luis Bunuel’s 1962 surrealist comedy “The Exterminating Angel,” Nancy and Alan try on numerous occasions to leave. Alan’s a busy man after all, as he’s constantly on his cell phone but each and every time something stops them and they end up going back in.
At first the conversation starts out calm, with the couples trying to be polite to one another. They talk about parenting, their kids, what needs to be done and what punishments, etc. The holes in the marriages are revealed and widened, Nancy is mad at Alan because he is always working and doesn’t spend that much time with their son Zachary. However, the couples remain patient and gracious.
The true difficulty with the movie is trying to take it deeper and Polanski and Reza are able to do it entirely through dialogue. After Nancy has thrown up out of nerves, (all over Penelope’s art books) and the scotch is broken out, topics such as behavior, Western values, what’s right and what’s wrong, are brought up. With these topics come the nastiest insults. The couples switch off taking shots at one another, back and forth. The movie is like a boiling pot of water. One minute it violently bubbles up over the edge, the next it’s at a calm simmer.
It’s also interesting to see the evolution of the characters. Penelope and Michael start off as the easygoing couple, Michael even acting as a conscientious objector in early arguments while Nancy and Alan are the stern, uneasy ones. Gradually, however, as the conversation gets deeper and feelings get hurt, opinions and roles change. Michael turns out to have a violent temper and Penelope becomes hysterical and unstable herself, while Alan and Nancy become the relaxed ones.
As good as the script and the direction is, a lot of the film depends on the actors and all four play off one another nicely but Waltz is the clear standout. Mainly because this is the first role he’s has where he hasn’t played a villain. At first he may remind you of Hans Landa from “Inglorious Basterds” with his sneering, his snide comments, his overall intimidating presence, though he really isn’t a bad guy. Waltz nails the delivery of every line of dialogue and he’s the only one who keeps his cool throughout the movie, while everyone else is screaming their heads off.
“Carnage” won’t be for everyone. Those who don’t like a lot of talking should stay far from it. True, not a lot happens in it in the way of regular movie action but so what? After seeing endless 3D shoot-em-up’s and depressing character studies it’s nice to see a simple, well made movie about people having an insightful conversation. Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory did it in 1981; why can’t Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, Jodie Foster and John C Reilly do it too?