Like Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap, Roman Polanski’s film Carnage – adapted from Yasmina Reza’s play God Of Carnage by Reza and Polanski – deals with the fallout of a fairly innocuous incident involving the striking of a child. Here, however, the aggressor is not an adult but another child of the same age, and after Zachary Cowan belts Ethan Longstreet in the face with a stick, the middle class Brooklyn parents of both boys meet to discuss the incident and to draft a letter to be sent to the boys’ school.
In the film’s opening scene we witness the blow in question from afar, but it is the last we will see of either Zachary or Ethan until the very end of the film. The meat in-between takes place entirely at the apartment of well-meaning lefties Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly); he’s a salesman, she writes serious-sounding books about various crises in Africa. The Longstreets are playing host to Zachary’s parents, Alan and Nancy Cowan, a colder, more upscale pair of New Yorkers played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet; he’s a bigshot lawyer pre-occupied with an impending lawsuit against a big pharma client, she’s an investment banker.
While relations between the two sets of parents are initially cordial, with politeness dictating that certain things should be said and certain other things should remain unsaid, the foursome gradually begin to bicker and argue as they discuss punishment for Zachary, as well as Michael’s decision to cruelly abandon an unwanted pet gerbil. Penelope apparently can’t let certain issues pass without comment and, in turn, Alan is irritable and a born arguer, infuriating Penelope with both his calmness and his desire to endlessly debate the use of specific words (and, indeed, his reliance on his phone). It is left to their respective partners to smooth the conversation from time to time while remaining loyal to their respective wife and husband, but the alliances begin to shift as the arguments get more and more heated and alcohol comes into the equation. The Cowans attempt to leave the apartment repeatedly but are drawn back for one reason or another. Amusingly this all leads to schoolyard-level bickering between the four as more and more anger pours out and long-standing grievances are aired.
Clearly originally written for the stage, Carnage relies heavily on its four well-drawn characters, and by extension the considerable acting talents of its four stars. Foster’s Penelope is proud but uptight, in truth concerned just as much about her coffee table art books (left deliberately on display for guests to notice and idly thumb) than her son’s fight and injuries. She is the first to confront and the first to explode with rage, and when the other three do catch up emotionally it leaves the actress with nowhere else to go; she just gets louder and redder as the film progresses. Reilly’s Michael is a regular guy, keen to share his own treasured possessions – whiskey and cigars – so that relations remain cordial, but Penelope’s overall disappointment in him as a partner surfaces gradually, with his boorishness in particular causing her anguish. Reilly plays this kind of amiable character very well indeed.
As a couple the Cowans – by way of comparison – are colder, sleeker, and seemingly more harassed by the time they are losing going round in circles with the Longstreets. Christoph Waltz is superb as the controlled-but-slightly-peeved Alan Cowan, and he delivers a completely believable performance in a film where the other three actors – presumably deliberately – go way over the top. Alan is the only character able to see that the entire process is pointless, but his frustration comes from knowing he must go through the motions to appease his wife and Ethan’s parents.
Despite a slip or two Waltz nails the accent, as does Winslet, who perhaps has the least interesting of the four parts to work with. She is still very good for the majority of the film, and gives the film its one truly jaw-dropping moment, although it’s unfortunate that she must act drunk after her character has barely had two sips of whiskey. Great actress though she is, it’s clearly someone pretending to be drunk, and the exaggerated slurring is irritating. Still, the shifting dynamic between Alan and Nancy is fun to watch, especially when the one thing Alan really does care about is damaged by his wife; they look like a couple that will get divorced at some stage, but for now both tolerate the constant back and forth sniping.
Polanski’s film is initially fun, subtly examining middle class conceits and sham conventions of politeness. The forced niceness makes you cringe at times, and Winslet and Foster both do an excellent job early on of letting their masks slip ever-so-slightly, whetting the appetite for the row that follows. However the rising volume of the voices and the gradual increase in the amount of bickering becomes boring after a while, and the stroppier the behavior becomes the less authentic it all feels.
Plays and films that ridicule and criticize the double standards or the ways of the middle class are ten-a-penny, so the question is whether Carnage actually stands out from the pack at all. The cast certainly helps in this respect, but ultimately it doesn’t really go far enough in its attack, and once these character types have had their moment of ridicule it simply goes round in ever-decreasing circles. This isn’t Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and it lacks the verve and matter-of-fact slightness of Woody Allen’s poisoned darts. These upwardly-mobile post-yuppie parents are ripe for lampooning, but once Polanski and Reza have taken care of this you have to wonder what the point of it all is supposed to be. There’s no savage criticism and the only message that comes through clearly is that some parents have issues and act like selfish, pedantic arseholes from time to time. Hardly revelatory.
Polanski – still a fugitive of course – shot the film in Paris (the opening and closing sequences were shot by a second unit in Brooklyn Bridge Park), and it’s certainly possible that some part of his own experiences with the US have in some way informed the adaptation. God Of Carnage was a fairly open and obvious criticism of American values even before Polanski got involved, but more relevantly the director’s decision to cast two Europeans as an American couple playing opposite two American actors has been remarked upon. Do the Longstreets represent Europe in some way? Do the Cowans – with their twin obsessions of money and lawsuits – represent a blinkered distillation of the United States that Polanski has been dealing with for close to 25 years?
The first half of this comedy drama, in which excruciating politeness is the order of the day and the four characters must keep their inner thoughts in check, is engaging and enjoyable; watching these talented actors slowly reveal to the camera how the characters really feel about one another is a real treat. The apartment setting is not cramped but our expectations these days of multiple locations ensures a certain degree of claustrophobia begins to take hold sooner rather than later; Polanski teases by moving the action to the building’s hallway twice, but brings it back to the main room of the Longstreet’s home almost immediately. Like the Cowans we are seemingly unable to escape.
The second half of the film – following a superb intermission in which Winslet’s Nancy loses some recently-eaten cobbler – is unfortunately not as good, as it essentially relies on the fact that ‘the gloves are off’ but not enough of the punches thrown actually land. Sadly despite only being 80 minutes long this runs out of steam around the hour mark, but it’s worth watching for the acting and it’s a nice throwback to stripped-back, minimal filmmaking of old.
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Written by: Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly
Running Time: 79 minutes