It is likely that director Roman Polanski will not be buying a condo near you any time soon. Not only because he would be arrested if he set foot on North American soil—he’s a fugitive from American justice—but because he clearly sees the confined spaces of apartment life as stifling, claustrophobic and toxic. In movie after movie—“The Tenant,” “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and now “Carnage”—these closed in spaces are scenes of tension and strife.
Based on Yazmina Reza’s play “God of Carnage” the film has a simple premise. Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) pay a visit to the Brooklyn apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) to discuss an altercation between their children in a nearby park. At first, at last superficially, all seems to go well, despite Alan’s insistence on having loud cell phone conversations and Penelope’s passive aggressive tirades. Soon, however, civility gives way to anarchy.
“Carnage” is a comedy of manners—bad manners. The humor—and there are many laughs—however, come from the situations and not jokes with punch lines.
Polanski deliberately keeps the style of the film simple and focuses on the performances and the dialogue. It’s all about the words—and one unexpected but spectacular puke scene—and not one syllable is out of place. Only Polanski, with the aid of two great actors—Waltz and O’Reilly—could make a conversation about toilet flush mechanisms so menacing and so funny.
It’s a sharply written war of words performed by actors who are clearly relishing the chance to get under the skins of their characters and each other. Nancy, Penelope and Michael are all as thinned skinned as the cheap veneer on Michael’s bookshelf. Only Alan, the cutthroat lawyer, seems to understand and appreciate the dynamic in play.
As the undercurrent of tension in the early scenes gives way to the overt hostility of the climax you can see the actors stretching their muscles.
Although her character is tightly wound Jody Foster has rarely been this loose on screen. It’s a highly theatrical performance, complete with bulging forehead veins and furrowed brows, which expertly reveals not only the character’s political correctness, but also her self pity and ultimately her self loathing. When she says, “There’s no reason to lose our cool here,” you know she doesn’t really mean it.
Waltz finds his best role since “Inglourious Basterds” and Winslet is gloriously unhinged. Only O’Reilly seems slightly out of place. He’s fine in the early scenes as the big friendly lug trying to avoid confrontation, but less effective later on when his true colors are revealed.
“Carnage” pokes fun at the middle class, constantly shifting the power from couple to couple, gender to gender, class to class and person to person. It’s a microcosm of society, a fluid dynamic that, despite an abrupt ending that may leave some scratching their heads, is a fascinating look at what lies underneath the carefully manicured facades many of us present to the public.