Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s hit play, Carnage, stars Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, and Kate Winslet as two sets of Brooklyn parents whose social, economic, and philosophic differences are leveled in less than 80 minutes by their common pettiness and immaturity.
Posh pair Alan and Nancy (Waltz and Winslet) have come to the home of wholesaler Michael (Reilly) and crunchy nonfiction author Penelope (Foster) to discuss how to deal with the fact that the former couple’s son hit the latter couple’s son in the face with a stick. Artificial politesse gives way to passive aggression, which gives way to aggressive aggression between the couples and within them. “We are not all short-tempered sons of a bitch!” Penelope yells at Carnage‘s halfway point. It’s the film’s idea of irony that, up to that moment and going forward, we see only evidence to the contrary.
A real-time, hell-is-other-people endurance test set, with the exception of two framing shots, entirely within the stuffy space of an upper-middle-class urban apartment, Carnage was filmed six months after Polanski was released from house arrest. His 10-month confinement to his Zurich apartment ended when Swiss authorities chose not to honor a request by the U.S. to extradite the then-76-year-old on statutory-rape charges dating back to 1977. Polanski hardly skirts the available parallels. Carnage (the film, not the play) begins with the boys’ altercation, an incident of violence that Polanski shoots from such a far remove that we cannot know what motivated it or have any sense of its context. The film to follow consists of outsiders with unique personal motives debating who’s to blame for an incident they did not witness and, it’s implied, cannot really objectively understand.
Polanski’s life, of course, has been uniquely dramatic, and from the Holocaust to the murder of his wife by the Manson Family, the filmmaker’s real-life traumas have ghosted his every personal and professional move. But for all of its apparent analogies to Polanski’s recent struggles, Carnage feels like a markedly impersonal exercise. Even as it successfully evokes the single location as a pressure cooker for heightened behavior (Polanski moves the camera as little as possible, preferring fixed wide shots that contain all four stars in the frame), its take on the psychological and emotional side effects of such an airless situation never transcends the obvious. (It’s got nothing on the house-arrest movie of the year, Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film.)
And unlike Polanski’s last film, the fatalistic political thriller The Ghost Writer, Carnage‘s study of the rotten underbelly of “polite” social interaction is completely transparent. From the moment 10 minutes in when Foster first breaks the facade of niceties by responding to Waltz’s insincere pleasantry (“At least we got a new recipe out of [the meeting]”) with an unrestrained shot (“Wish our son didn’t have to lose two teeth in the process”), there’s no question in what direction this is headed.
The material is ostensibly farce, but Polanski never lets the proceedings skip his carefully laid rails. The film—and Reilly, Foster, and Winslet’s arch, oversculpted performances—has a precision you can set your watch to. At exactly 30 minutes in, the drama hops one level above realism with a character’s visceral breach of the social contract; 15 minutes later, they start drinking and jump to a platform even further removed from plausibility; 20 minutes after that, they’re dangerously drunk, and predictable hysterics ensue (hysterics that might be a little more believable had they been up all night drinking, not sipping scotch for 20 minutes with mid-afternoon light streaming in).
Waltz’s character is both the film’s most unabashed villain and its version of a straight man. As the most cynical, least conciliatory member of the quartet (that he constantly takes business calls on his cell in the middle of this meeting is basically his fuck-you to all of this), the actor’s insidiously even keel is perpendicular to and punctures the exaggerated arcs of the rest of the cast. In the final stage of the film’s programmatic chaos, Alan announces that he believes in the god of carnage and cops to the pleasure he gets from watching people deviate from social convention and tear one another apart. You’d have to agree with him in order to embrace this film—there’s nothing else to see here.