In Carnage, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s drawing room play, The Gods of Carnage, two middle-class couples meet to discuss an incident in which their respective sons had an altercation on the playground. Two unbroken establishing shots bookend the film, and the opening one depicts how Zachary (Elvis Polanski), while being taunted in Brooklyn Park, indifferently wacked Ethan (Eliot Berger) with a large stick, causing damage to his left incisor.
In the aftermath, as we are immediately plopped down in the snazzy apartment of Ethan’s well-off parents, Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), as they entertain and attempt to smooth over any bad-feelings with Zachary’s posh folks, Alan and Nancy Cowen (Chrisoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), a real-time 80 minutes of pleasantries and nice gestures inconspicuously boiling over into shifting alliances, flaring tempers, and the eponymous carnage unfolds.
Under the guise of good will, generosity, and the best interests of their children, the two couples are, at least superficially, after some kind of reconciliation between their two boys, but they are somehow, innately, drawn toward conflict with each other. Like Polanski’s first and maybe greatest film, Knife In The Water, Carnage is about human behavior in small spaces—the idea that whenever human beings come in close contact, there is always the possibility of disaster. In Knife In The Water, however, danger seemed unavoidable, inevitable; in Carnage, it’s when you want to scream at the screen (Just Leave Already!) that you realize that the characters are compelled to stick around by something greater than themselves: humanity’s magnetic pull toward self-destruction.
Carnage is in good cinematic company, too. When it seemed that this uncomfortable visit was never going to end, and niceties had gone fatally south into too-much-information territory, I couldn’t help but think of Mike Nichols’ masterful Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And the fact that these four lavish-living people—Alan with his BlackBerry that won’t stop ringing, Penelope with her do-gooder book on Darfur, and Michael with his 20-year-old scotches and cigars—can’t seem to get anything meaningful done recalls the ineffectual diners of Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Shot with wide angle, unnatural close-ups and pretty window light, with mirrors and reflections that stress duality and suggest themes far more encompassing than the plight of the bickerers inside the narrative, Carnage is an experiment in the human proclivity for conflict—a theme Polanski, a notorious misanthrope, has spent much of his career preening through with a fine-toothed comb. “These people are monsters!” spouts Winslet’s Nancy after the booze has been uncorked and all courtesies have sailed out the window. I wonder: what monsters is she referring to exactly?Before the film’s short runtime is up, the veils of patience and dignity that outline the effective performances dissolve into shouting matches of the pettiest malice. The film ends just in time too (another twenty minutes of it might have been insufferable). Polanski knows how to quit when he’s ahead. Carnage’s ironic final bookend seals the deal: if the rest of the world’s creatures can find a way to make it work, why can’t the privileged and college-educated four at the movie’s center spend one hour together without coming apart at the seams? To ponder that question is to wonder, at least on some level, how human beings can become monsters.