By Don Simpson | December 16, 2011
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski, Yasmina Reza
Starring: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly, Elvis Polanski, Eliot Berger
Carnage begins in Brooklyn Bridge Park — one of only two exterior scenes which bookend the film — as one 11-year-old boy, Zachary (Elvis Polanski), strikes another, Ethan (Eliot Berger), with a stick. As Ethan walks away from the brawl with two missing teeth, we are left to imagine Ethan’s eventual return home to his presumably distraught, devastated and enraged parents — Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly).
It is a tad off-putting when we see Penelope and Michael, in the very next scene, making nice with Zachary’s parents — Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) — in a joint attempt to initiate a reconciliation between their sons. It seems almost un-American that this story does not instantly digress into a legal dispute over what appears to have been an intentional tort. In fact, the couples initially seem quite capable of resolving their differences amicably; but the facade of superficial niceties only lasts for so long, as Carnage spends the remainder of its concise 79-minute running time observing — and encouraging — the disintegration of the civilities between the four adults. Carnage slowly simmers into a boiling brass knuckles assault on the elitist social mores of urban, upper-middle-class Caucasians.
Despite the timidity of the early conversations, it is clear that each of the parents has jumped to their own conclusions about Zachary and Ethan. The parents well never know what really happened (and I wish Polanski refrained from revealing the actual event to us), so they opt to impose their uniquely individual biases upon the situation. The two men perceive the brawl as a prepubescent playground ritual, a sign of the masculine hormones pumping through the two 11-year old boys’ veins. As Alan and Michael see it, the boys were just being boys; Ivanhoe and John Wayne would be proud of both of them. But really, Alan could not give a rat’s ass about any of it — and he signals his patronizing indifference to the whole scenario by prioritizing work-related cellphone conversations over the discussion of the events at hand.
In a Buñuelian set-up, every time Nancy and Alan attempt to leave Penelope and Michael’s apartment, something drives the group back inside for another round of rapid-fire dialog. The foursome square off over espresso, then cobbler and coffee, then scotch — and each course generates a novel tone to the conversation. Off-handed, passive-aggressive remarks (such as Penelope’s barbed insinuations) give way to a barrage of unveiled aggression. Buttons upon buttons are pushed and the badly behaving adults commence a dizzying do-si-do of side-taking. Their shroud of civility crumbles like cobbler under the scrutinous gaze of the ever-present camera.
Writer-director Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s source play God of Carnage (Le Dieu du carnage) retains the staged minimalism of a theatrical production. This allows the film, which unfolds in near real time within the confines of one Brooklyn apartment, to function as a claustrophobic chamber piece of urban alienation (a specialty of sorts for Polanski). Reza’s original thesis is that due to inherent differences in gender, class and personal philosophy, individuals exist in a near-Hobbesian state of opposition to each other. Polanski’s pitch-black farce of the charmless [American] bourgeoisie takes the charade even further, going straight for the jugular of the Northeasten urban elitists. In Polanski’s cynical hands, the venomous conversations and half-hearted attempts at compromise reveal the hypocritical pretenses of educated and cultured society.
Despite the overtly staged setting, Carnage relies heavily upon Pawel Edelman’s tediously crafted mise en scène. Forced perspectives solicit us to take notice of even the slightest of visual cues — and these winks and nudges are even funnier than the satirically humorous dialog. Polanski’s cinematic adaptation truly transcends the confines of the stage with it masterful use of visual subtext. I cannot think of another living director who could have made something so rich and vibrant out of 79-minutes of incessant talking, but I will say that this script could have been prime creative fodder for Robert Altman or Stanley Kubrick.