Carnage seems to be a pretty good movie, but I have no way of evaluating it without comparing it to the play on which it’s based, God of Carnage, which I saw on Broadway with a perfect cast (James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis). This isn’t fair to the picture—or to viewers who come to it with a clean slate—but I simply couldn’t erase the memory of that theatrical experience as I watched the film, which director Roman Polanski adapted for the screen with playwright Yasmina Reza.
Polanski has staged the movie so it never feels claustrophobic, even though it takes place in one Brooklyn, New York apartment and its adjacent hallway over the course of a long afternoon. But he has failed to capture the play’s ever-so-gradual buildup of tension.
The premise is that Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet have come to call on Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly to discuss an upsetting schoolyard incident in which the first couple’s son has beat up the other’s. Because these four people are intelligent adults, they hope they can resolve their differences through positive means instead of resorting to physical or verbal abuse as their children have done.
In the play, the couples’ veneer of decorum is slowly stripped away, revealing them as savages in disguise. In the film, Foster’s character is prickly and annoying right from the start, while her husband (Reilly) never appears to be threatening or even terribly upset. His change of tone, midway through the film, is incomplete and ineffectual, while hers begins at such a high pitch that she has nowhere to go to add color to her character.
The breakdown of the other, more genteel, couple doesn’t have nearly the impact it should. Waltz and Winslet are skillful actors, but in spite of the ability of film to show closeups (as theater cannot) their characters remain somewhat remote, so it’s difficult to engage with them when the narrative takes its final turn.
Carnage isn’t dull or uninteresting, and it’s never a waste of time to watch four talented performers tackle meaty material such as this. But I have to mark the film a failure because I know that it should have been better.
More to the point, it probably should have remained a piece of theater, the medium for which it was created.