By Josh Ralske
Press Play Special Contributor
What is it about Roman Polanski, confined spaces, and madness? As Steven Santos suggests in his video essay “Spaces”, Polanski’s unpleasant characters often find themselves trapped, not just by their physical surroundings, but by the growing certainty that their lives are unraveling around them. Physical violence plays a small, comically insubstantial role in Carnage. The real carnage, of course, is verbal and emotional.
It’s all about that psychological violence, about a growing sense of comic dread at having to spend time (in this case, a very brisk, lively 80 minutes) watching these unpleasant but not completely hateful characters tear each other (and themselves) to pieces.
“Comic dread” is not a phrase I’ve used often, and while there’s usually a darkly humorous element to Polanski’s work, the handful of his films that could be considered “comedies” are among his least successful. In fact, Carnage, with its almost farcical reversals and building chaos, is probably the only great comedy he’s ever made. (I should clarify that I’m not including the over-the-top wackiness of Bitter Moon or The Tenant in this category. I am including the kitschy, beloved The Fearless Vampire Killers.)
Unlike The Ghost Writer, which jammed Polanski’s perverse, alienated, sardonic aesthetic into a dryly glamorous, somewhat boilerplate international thriller, Carnage seems, in many ways, perfectly suited to the director’s oeuvre.
The film opened with a surprise, for me. I went in cold for a change; it had even slipped my mind that the film was based on Yasmina Reza‘s play, God of Carnage. So my reaction to the opening shot was, “Wait a minute. That’s New York City.” Even those unfamiliar with the original work will probably realize immediately that Polanski is not going to “open up” the play. Like his characters, Polanski couldn’t step out into the big world outside that elegant apartment, even if he wanted to.
One couple, investment broker Nancy (Kate Winslet) and corporate lawyer Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) visit another, hamster-murdering hardware wholesaler Michael (John C. Reilly) and writer Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), to discuss a violent incident between their respective sons in Brooklyn Bridge Park (seen over the opening credits), in which the Cowan boy hit the Longstreet kid in the mouth with a stick. The parents get together, and at first it seems like the type of perfunctory meeting at which people behave politely and keep whatever they’re really thinking to themselves. But of course, one can’t let oneself be walked on, and one’s children are important, and little things are bound to slip out. Including vomit — so much vomit — from Nancy, all over Penelope’s rare art catalogues. So much for our pretensions at being civilized and highly cultured people.
I don’t think I’ve seen a film so focused on the minutiae of language and the minefields we traverse in everyday conversation since Pontypool, and that’s good company. These are terrific actors, of course, able to convey a wide range of emotions with tremendous subtlety. It’s indicative of the quality of the performances here that Foster sometimes seems a little outclassed. Waltz gets big laughs just through the way Alan relates to the furniture in the Longstreet apartment, casually resting his leg against a cabinet while taking a call, or moving his plate around and munching Penelope’s controversial cobbler as he chats away about the potentially damaging story involving a pharmaceutical client that just broke in the Wall Street Journal. The phone rings and he’s no longer really in the room. His relation to his Blackberry is nothing particularly original, but it’s conveyed with such precision, such specificity, that it’s hysterically funny. There are several moments when it seems like the Cowans are on their way out the door, but of course they’re staying for the length of this real-time scenario. The funniest of these near-escapes is when Alan (who seems to want out more than anyone) backs out of the elevator, into Nancy, who’s following him on, because he is losing reception.
Eventually, inevitably, the couples give up their frail façade of solidarity and turn on each other. There’s a predictability to the way the conflicts break down along gender lines, but one of the pleasures of Carnage is that, within its relatively simple framework, there’s an attention to detail that makes it all feel fresh and surprising. It has that in common with the debased urbanity of earlier works like The Tenant, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, where the audience is aware going in that we will witness a disintegration, a breakdown of social interaction, a decline into madness, but wherein the pleasure lies in the ironies produced by that foreknowledge, and in the wit of the filmmakers’ details.
Of course, Polanski works well with actors (he got Adrien Brody an Oscar! True story!), and shoots their environs with great precision. Aside from those bookends in the park, it all takes place in the Longstreets’ lovingly-appointed Brooklyn apartment. Everything is in its place, the director knows where to put the camera. He’s shot this type of chamber piece before. The set is designed to the hilt, and every shot conveys useful information about who these people are and how they live. And while these two couples are trapped, almost like Buñuel’s famous dinner party guests, the audience never feels that way.
And, well, there’s the rub. This is a terrific film. (Despite that hamster at the end. That hamster belongs in the same film with the rat at the end of The Departed, and they should talk and have adventures, and maybe it should be in 3D, but they should never serve as metaphors for anything or pretend they have anything profound to say about anything.) But shouldn’t we be a bit more uncomfortable? The actors lend these characters humanity and complexity, but (and this is particularly true of Penelope, whose very name provokes mocking titters, and perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel Foster quite held her own in this ensemble) the film is clearly holding them in judgment, and there’s a coldness — a distancing, despite the close quarters — that allows us to sit in judgment as well. This isn’t Neil LaBute territory — it’s a lot funnier, for one thing — but it verges on that type of glibness and superficial cynicism. It doesn’t have the thematic depth of, say, Six Degrees of Separation, which skewers a similar stratum of well-heeled New Yorkers, but addresses issues of race and class in a way that takes it beyond the parameters of “rich white people and their problems.” Carnage addresses the world at large, in passing, and it’s clear that part of its point is that to these people, that outside world is only of interest to the extent that it reflects on how they see themselves. In the press notes, the actors discuss how the film addresses parenting, but Carnage is — pointedly — not at all about parenting. The children, like Africa, exist only as a reflection of their parents’ fragile egos.
Any film that makes me laugh as much as this film did, that’s this smart and precise and vibrantly acted, and that sends me from the theater with something to talk about, well, that film gets a strong recommendation, however short it may fall of its aspirations to profundity and greatness.