This review originally appeared on Capital New York.
A privileged existence leads to guilt, and guilt leads to savage behavior. This is the obvious message in Roman Polanski’s Carnage (an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s hit Broadway play God of Carnage), where two sets of upscale New York parents get together to discuss a brawl between their sons on the schoolyard. Over the course of the next 80 minutes, what should have been a cordial conversation between concerned parents descends into anarchy. Ugliness and pettiness is laid bare, and there is no hope for humanity. And, oh yeah, it’s hilarious from beginning to end.
The twisted slick script doesn’t have the bite of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a similar-themed play about the mutually assured destruction of four human beings during a fateful booze-soaked night. Carnage stays on the surface, but this is not necessarily a flaw. It is what Yasmina Reza wrote. A comedy of manners with farcical elements, Carnage is both brutal and exhilarating, sometimes in the same moment. It is a tour de force for the four actors, and a reminder (as if we needed one) of why Polanski, controversies notwithstanding, is a great director.
The film, like the play, takes place in real time and in one location. Polanski said part of the appeal of the project was he had “never made a film without the slightest ellipse”. Polanski, his significant creative energies released when working in a confined single space (the apartments in Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby), shows his unquestioned mastery at creating an event in Carnage.
Jodie Foster plays Penelope Longstreet, a passive-aggressive politically-correct New Yorker, whose articulate polite exterior barely masks an underbelly of rage and self-pity. Her son was “disfigured” on the playground, and she has engineered this meeting at her own apartment to try to understand what happened. She is a professional do-gooder. She has written not one but two books on Africa. She is competitive, and yet her liberal background makes her uncomfortable with being perceived as competitive. She is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen.
Penelope is married to Michael (John C. Reilly), who owns a housewares store. Played with ferocity and humorous rage by Jim Gandolfini in the Broadway production, Reilly is an unlikely choice for the role. He brings a submerged emasculated energy to Michael, and this ends up working. It shows how this bear of a man has been dominated by a society that feels his working-class background is something to be ashamed of.
Kate Winslet and Christopher Waltz play Nancy and Alan Cowan, whose son was “armed” with a stick on the playground. Nancy, at first, is eager to show her evolved mindset. Alan is a lawyer for a pharmaceutical company embroiled in a lawsuit due to the side effects of one particular drug which they refuse to remove from the shelves. Alan, dragged to the Longstreets by his wife, answers his constantly ringing cell phone, no matter when it goes off, and even worse, has lengthy conversations with his colleagues while Penelope, Michael, and Nancy sit around waiting for him to finish.
The play was a miracle of unity, with all four characters displaying a brittle overlay of civilization and ending up collectively as potential inmates in Bellevue. The idea is that our baser selves are our true selves, and the rigmarole we all go through to hide our primitive natures is a useless enterprise. You can see why Polanski was drawn to this material. When I saw the Broadway play, which ran without intermission, it was like being trapped in that apartment with those four awful people. The dialogue came fast and furious, bringing roars of laughter at almost every line, and the audience rode that roller-coaster screaming all the way. Translating that immediacy to a screenplay was one of Polanski’s biggest challenges.
Penelope and Michael play host, and Nancy and Alan try to be gracious, but the rift is visible almost immediately. Nancy and Alan keep trying to leave, but Alan’s ringing cell phone stops them every time. Finally, Michael breaks out a bottle of Scotch, and all hell breaks loose. Penelope’s veneer shatters. Michael announces himself as the politically-incorrect bore (and boor) he has always been. Nancy projectile vomits her cobbler all over Penelope’s art books. And Alan grows more and more impatient at what he sees to be the inanity of the entire encounter.
There are great swings in the action. Suddenly, “sides” are drawn. The men team up. They smoke cigars and gang up on the women. The women gang up on the men. Polanski shows this in his framing. For the first 3/4s of the film, the frame is cluttered with faces. A character is rarely alone onscreen, and if they are, then the mirrors on the walls reflect back the other characters. By the end, Polanski switches to huge closeups, indicating there is no shared experience here, just individuals fighting for the last shred of sanity they each have.
Jodie Foster is almost surreal in her rage here, and she is hysterically funny in her self-pity, a quality not normally associated with Foster. There is a moment when Alan, sensing Penelope’s weak spot, makes fun of Africa, and she, already ratcheted up, says to him, veins bulging out of her forehead, “Don’t you talk to me about Africa“. It was absurd and outrageous. John C. Reilly, miscast, survives quite well, making Michael his own. (Jim Gandolfini is a tough act to follow.) When Nancy goes off the rails, drunk on Scotch, Reilly stares up at her with boozy appreciation and surprise, saying to himself, “Wow!” Winslet’s meltdown is as out-of-control as promised, bursting her out of the seams of her sensible blue suit. She’s glorious when she lets her freak flag fly: it is in stark contrast to her nervous unhappiness in the early parts of the film. Christopher Waltz eats up the screen (as well as two plates of cobbler) in his role as the despicable and selfish Alan, who, alone amongst the four, does not seem surprised things disintegrate so quickly.
Polanski may seem like an odd choice for such rollicking material, but his films have always been funnier than they are remembered. There’s a chilling moment in Repulsion when Catherine Deneuve spots her sister’s boyfriend’s toothbrush on the sink in the bathroom. With a swift look of disgust on her face, she knocks it into the wastebasket. It’s scary moment, but funny as well. On deeper examination, Carnage is a perfect fit for Polanski’s detached and contemptuous position as an outsider. His outsider status gives his films their tension and power. Only briefly was he ever part of a “community”. He survived the Holocaust as a child. He was a glorified refugee in swinging London. His films in Hollywood garnered praise, awards, acclaim, and for a while he was a member of an elite group. Then his wife and unborn child were murdered. He racked up controversies as well as crimes, and so he fled, on the outside once again.
His cold clear eye sees the absurdity and humor in “normal” life, because he remains above it. His response to terror is often a shrug. The world is brutal. This is how it goes.
In Carnage, each character starts with an assigned accepted role in a larger community, in marriage, in parenting, in careers. By the end, all communities are ripped away, and each individual is left unprotected against the cold blast of isolation.
Community was an illusion in the first place.
Why this is all so funny is a testament to Reza’s script and to Polanski’s firm hand.