Roman Polanski’s latest film, Carnage, is a bracing blast of vicious black comedy. It’s not that it takes no prisoners. On the contrary, what it does is take prisoners—its four characters and the audience—trapping with them for about 80 minutes of shrewdly judged screen time. The idea is to watch four people—who’ve met to deal with a playground altercation between their respective sons—descend to their own levels of childishness as tempers flare and the veneer of civilized behavior unravels. The spectacle might be too uncomfortable to laugh at, but it’s also too uncomfortable to do anything else with.
The film is adapted—by Polanski and playwright Yasmin Reza—from Reza’s play Le Dieu du Carnage (The God of Carnage) and, yes, its stage origins are obvious. But that’s not a downside, since the drama can only work in a confined space. Polanski’s approach is inherently cinematic—each composition and each camera movement is precisely judged for maximum effect—but the dialogue has the sound of a play. It’s well-honed, literate and not quite real, but since for much of the film the characters are in essence playing the socially accepted roles they think they ought to play, that slight artificiality perfectly suits the movie.
The film opens with the playground fight that starts all this. We see it, but only at a distance and we hear none of it, putting us in only slightly better shape concerning what happened than the parents. All we know is that the encounter ended with one kid hitting the other with a stick. From that, the film moves to the quartet of parents hovering around a computer screen in the apartment of Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), the parents of the victim. Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz), parents of the perpetrator, are mostly observing and offering the occasional suggestion about the wording of the account of the altercation Penelope is typing up.
The whole situation seems perfectly simple and straightforward—even if the basic idea of this ersatz and remarkably undetailed police report seems pointless to the degree of silly. The problem is that as things progress one or another of the quartet finds a reason to object and drag the meeting out. It’s not long before tensions start arising on every side. By the time that Penelope unconsciously drops the phrase “violence is our business” into her argument, the civilized soiree is headed straight to hell. It’s not long before the situation finds husband turning against wife and vice versa.
And strangely—as if the characters were trapped in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962)—the Cowans appear to be unable to leave the Longstreets’ apartment. They make it as far as the elevator a couple of times (once provoking a neighbor—a fleeting glimpse of Polanski—to open his door to see what the fuss is), but they always end up going back into the apartment for another round. The point of the meeting—if there ever really was one—has been lost long before the ending. In its place, long-withheld resentments have bubbled to the surface. We end up with a biting satire on our notion of how “evolved” (the film’s term) we are and how much we define ourselves by what we own. (Each character feels superior to the others’ clinging to some defining object, yet each has one of his or her own.)
The comedy is bitter and uncompromising—and too close to home to be comfortable. It’s impossible not to think of the characters’ inability to leave in connection with Polanski’s 10-month house arrest in Switzerland in 2010—and I doubt that the choice of making this film upon getting out was entirely coincidental—but it’s not central to the film, which is more universal in its aims than that. None of the characters are a Polanski figure, but they are people almost all of us have known—or worse, have been. For that matter, the concept of characters held in some form of isolating prison runs through Polanski’s filmography from Knife in the Water (1962) through The Ghost Writer (2010). (I count no less than 11 Polanski features with that as part of the set-up.)
Naturally, a film like this relies heavily on performances, and Polanski cast the movie very wisely. All four of the actors in Carnage are letter perfect from beginning to end. It works in such way that just when you think the film “belongs” to one of them, another shifts into the center of your attention. Ensemble casts rarely get better than this. It’s particularly nice to see Christoph Waltz, as the cellphone-addicted Alan, in something worthy of his talents post-Inglourious Basterds (2009).
So is Carnage absolute top-drawer Polanski? Probably not quite, though I can’t actually fault it—and I’ve seen it twice (it’s actually funnier the second time). Time will really be the arbiter of that call. In the meantime, see it for yourself, but remember, this is not a “nice” movie. Rated R for language.