Note on reviews: I try not to spoil what I would consider major plot revelations in any of my reviews, but I do like to talk about movies in a way that would be meaningful to someone who has seen the film. Thus, assume there are probably more spoilers than you’d find in, say, the trailer for any given film.
Secondary note: I’m not particularly interested in discussions about Polanski’s history. I understand some people are, and boycott his films on those grounds. That’s their right; it is also my right to watch movies by a director despite his life choices. So none of that is going to have any bearing on this review.
There’s a moment in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris where the main character Gil, a time travelling do-nothing intellectual, runs across Spanish director Luis Buñuel. He tells him this great idea he had about people who were trapped in a room (referencing Buñuel’s later film, The Exterminating Angel.) Buñuel asks the obvious question: why can’t they get out of the room? To which Gil answers … well, they just can’t.
That is essentially the biggest hurdle to overcome with Roman Polanski’s latest movie, an adaptation of the French play The God of Carnage. It concerns two couples who meet to discuss an altercation between their kids that left one of them injured. It quickly descends into a comedic version of the classic existential hell in a room scenario, seen in Bunuel’s work and in Sartre’s No Exit.
I’ll fully admit it’s this room-of-no-escape conceit that is perhaps the hardest to overcome, one that probably worked better on the stage (the film attempts to overcome the proscenium arch with discursions away from the single living room where most of the film takes place, but they only serve to heighten the inherent claustrophobia of a one-room setting), but it is the only major hurdle to what is otherwise a smart, funny comedy of humanity.
Unlike those other works, however, there’s no mystical or spiritual force keeping the two couples stuck in an excruciatingly designed and sterile New York City apartment on this particular afternoon–they are there because they choose to be. What Carnage is more than anything is a story about how manners and so-called civilized life have turned human nature into a time bomb of suppressed aggression just waiting for a spark.
As could be expected from this premise, we’re talking about a movie that relies entirely on the actors cast. The couple hosting this little apocalyptic get-together are played by Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly. He’s a door to door salesman of house fixtures, emasculated into submissive agreeableness by his mother and his wife, who has written a book about tragedy in Africa and is researching another and is more than happy to belittle a person’s day-to-day complaints by comparing them to genocide.
On the opposite side, the parents of the kid who struck Foster and Reilly’s son and knocked out several of his teeth, is the combination of Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet. Waltz is a high-priced lawyer whose pharmaceutical client has hidden adverse side effects of a drug about to be exposed by the press. He barely hides his contempt for being there, interrupting everyone to have increasingly frantic (and probably illegal) conversations on his phone. Winslet is his long-suffering wife, perfectly made up and the picture of upper class elegance, a Stepfordian desperation that underlies her initial attempts to mediate a stressful situation.
The couples get off on the wrong foot immediately, Foster’s character Penelope writing out a statement of what happened and the couples arguing over whether the child was ‘armed with’ a stick or simple ‘was carrying’ said stick used in the altercation. The business of getting the facts down is quickly settled, but the couples end up sitting around the coffee table eating cobbler forced on them by John C. Reilly. Penelope’s cobbler, apparently chilled when it shouldn’t have been by an unseen daughter, is an apple/pear/gingerbread monstrosity Waltz and Winslet choke down in obvious disbelief but spoken appreciation.
Soon they’re ready to leave, ushered all the way down the hall to the elevator before the final question of getting the kids together so apologies can happen comes up. Waltz is obviously disinterested, before Penelope insists he attend this second meeting. Eventually the question arises of whether an apology obtained under duress even ‘counts’ as the kid learning his lesson, and the mild argument that erupts ends with everybody back in the living room, interrupted only when Winslet, made sick by the cobbler, throws up all over the artfully arranged out of print reproduction art books arranged on the coffee table.
Madness, as you might expect, ensues.
At this point you probably fall into two camps: people who think this sounds like the most droll and pretentious mess of yammering bullshit ever, and people who think this sounds amazing. And you know what? They’re both right. It is absolutely indulgent bullshit, European bourgeois existentialism at its most bare. But it delights in this dual sense of middle aged nihilism and outright classist farce in the same vein as Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, giving you a good sense of what you’re getting into here.
It’s amazing to watch these actors, all of them with quietly amazing careers, just act the hell out of this situation. Soon after the vomit incident, Reilly’s character breaks out the scotch and him and Waltz suddenly break off into a gender-split fiefdom of masculine swaggering that puts a whole other dynamic on the situation, leading to all four characters quickly destroying the bottle of scotch and spending the rest of the movie in various states of drunkenness as they start oversharing and overreacting to the point of actually coming to ineffectual blows at one point.
Special note here needs to be given to Christoph Waltz, who hasn’t really shone particularly bright after his Oscar win in Inglourious Basterds. He’s magnetic here, the only man in the room who seems to be okay with being an asshole, openly mocking the other characters and laughing along with the audience in open contempt of the absurdities presented him (right up until someone takes his phone, when he turns into a man without a lifeboat, suddenly panicked and aggressive). Every actor here is great, but it’s a firm reminder that his most notable role to date was not a fluke in any sense.
Going on at length about the dynamics of these four people would be just as fun as watching the movie itself, but simply put Carnage is a movie about the pretense bought into by humanity (and adults specifically) that masks the same, if not worse, petulance and pettiness that characterizes the animal reactions of the children that started this whole mess. It is, at its heart, a modest movie, with small ambitious and a singular sense of purpose. It’s not going to win any awards, and it’s not going to blow anyone’s mind, but it is relentlessly funny and honed to a razor sharpness. I couldn’t recommend its gleeful meanness enough.