Carnage Movie Review

Two kids have an altercation in a park, one cops a smack in the mouth and requires dental treatment, and the parents – Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster) and Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Walz, Kate Winslet) – meet up at the Longstreet’s Manhattan apartment to discuss how best to address the situation.

Both couples are determinedly civil and conciliatory initially, but when the meeting is drawn out due to Alan’s mobile phone compulsion and Nancy falling ill and vomiting spectacularly all over the living room, cracks appear in the polite facades. A bottle of Scotch is added to the equation, and the evening degenerates into petty squabbling and point-scoring, with all four characters at each others’ throats as alliances change and marital resentments surface. What began as a très ‘adult’ interchange ends up as a childish shitfight far worse than the bingle between the boys that brought the warring parties together in the first place.

Directed and co-written by Roman Polanski, and based on French playwright Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, this is a funny, savagely satirical look at middle-class political correctness, the ineptness of contemporary parenting that borrows heavily from pop culture ‘wisdom’, and the hypocrisies that lurk beneath the surface of polite society.

In a sense, it’s curious that Polanski has been drawn to this essentially theatrical strategy of throwing a group of conflicted characters into a confined space, turning up the heat, and letting the pressure cooker environment wreak havoc. It’s a time-tested and dramatically fertile setup, of course, but imposes all sorts of obvious restraints filmically.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to imagine Polanski finding such a challenge appealing. Then there is the freedom that comes with a small budget production like this – what price artistic liberation?

Indeed, this may have been the bait that attracted the fine cast. The opportunity to work with Polanski on a claustrophobic one-room (mostly) set where there is no space to hide must have been an exquisitely terrifying prospect. All the performers are in the glare of the spotlight throughout; the success or failure of the film rests squarely with them and the material they have to work with.

Happily, both are up to the task. In fact, the actors delight in their roles. And well they might – the script is witty, scathing in its underlying commentary, psychologically astute, and – o joy of joys – adheres strictly to Aristotle’s unity of dramatic time. More than strictly, actually. Unusually these days, dramatic time is live time in this piece.

I’m known to lament to those who will listen (not many, and decreasing by the conversation) that many movies today would work far better if filmmakers paid at least some heed to the Aristotelian unities. It’s a trifle disconcerting for me, then, to report that in this instance live dramatic time did pose a small problem: the characters got drunk too fast. Easy to forgive, however, when the humour and satire works as well as it does here.

So, what did Polanski bring to this as a film? Could it have succeeded as well or better on stage? Well, the second question is academic, really. I enjoyed the movie immensely, and that’s all that matters.

I’m a Polanski fan. Take that as a disclaimer if you will. I like the way he crafts his movies. He doesn’t strive to put his mark on his work; everything he does is in the service of the piece. So it is here.

The camerawork is not intrusive, leaving the actors to get on with their stuff, yet is mercilessly claustrophobic, honing in on the minutiae of the adults’ communications and their underlying sub-agendas, and hemming in the action within the walls of the living room. By contrast, there are a couple of telling long external shots at the beginning and end of the movie that feature the kids in a park, which have the effect of simplifying the goings on between them. It’s a profound contrast.

Precious petal PC parents of today will probably find plenty to object to in this movie. Good, I say. They deserve to feel attacked. If you’re not one of ‘them’, go along and have a good belly laugh. Don’t feel too smug, though – you’ll probably see aspects of yourself as the characters fall, nay crash, from grace.

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6 thoughts on “Carnage Movie Review”

  1. Oh, I’m conflicted about this. I want to see it – I’m a big Kate Winslet fan – but I also want to boycott it. Why? Well, your sentence
    The opportunity to work with Polanski on a claustrophobic one-room (mostly) set where there is no space to hide must have been an exquisitely terrifying prospect.
    has a peculiar resonance in light of Polanski’s history.
    Nice review, but.
    First on my list to see, though, now that Fringe is over, is My Week With Marilyn.

  2. Oh, please DO go and see this one, Karen. I hate the thought that anything I wrote in my review should put someone off the movie – especially you. I know you appreciate movies that brilliantly adhere to all the dramatic fundamentals, and this one certainly does. Plus it’s a hoot. The actors are having such fun it’s impossible not to go along with them.

    Truth to tell, I contained myself in the review. It’s another terrific movie in a year that has delivered the goods quite spectacularly in its first two months: Hugo, The Artist, My Week With Marilyn and now Carnage – I’m dizzy with the excitement of it all! And I haven’t even seen The Descendents

    I had some long arguments with a female friend a couple of decades back who wouldn’t read Lolita because it “normalised pedophilia.” I disagree with her charge. And if I could pick a favourite novel it would be Lolita. Why is another conversation. Suffice it to say, I think Nabokov turned out an absolute masterpiece with this one: full of brilliantly colourful writing, wit and humanity. In the course of our discussions, my friend also stated that she would never read de Sade because of the horrific crimes he committed. I do not go along with this, either. I can separate the art from its creator. Then again, I have not suffered the abuse this friend had, and that might account for our differences in attitude. Not saying anything like this applies to you. Just reflecting on possible reasons for such contrasting attitudes. Anyway, off track.

    Look, please discard my review if I’ve put you off. Carnage is terrif, and I’d be sorry to feel responsible for you missing it.

  3. No no, Rolan, it’s not what you wrote that has put me off seeing this film by Polanski, it’s my longstanding inability to separate the art from its creator. No doubt he is a great auteur, but, sheesh, are themes of culpability and facing the music addressed in this work?
    The trailer is tantalising. I may end up putting aside my qualms and going to see it anyway. Weak as piss, eh!

  4. I agree with you re Lolita, which I reread recently. It’s made clear that the paedophelia is deviant, and that Humbert knows it is. Nabokov was not personally culpable.

  5. Actually, the Polanski case was not as cut and dried as you might think. Have you researched it? I hadn’t until recently, and it was an eye-opener. No doubt about his guilt, but the judge reneged on a plea bargain after Polanski had spent some weeks in the clink. He fled the country because he didn’t believe he could trust the judge or the justice system to assess his case fairly. Can’t say I blame him, on the evidence.

    His victim has since stated that the judge inflicted far more suffering on her and her family as a result of his grandstanding and publicity-seeking actions than Polanski ever did. Food for thought. I’m in no way defending Polanski’s crime, but the justice system was defective.

    BTW, I was talking around the general theme of pedophilia in art when I brought up Lolita. Obviously, there are no parallels personally between Nabokov and Polanski. I did bring up de Sade, though, as a more extreme example of a writer whose personal depravity precluded my friend from reading him. As with you and Polanski, for her there was a moral issue with the person that was an obstacle to accessing his art. I can separate the art from the artist without feeling any sort of moral dilemma, but I can see that this is not the case with some others. Not making any judgment on that. Who has the right? I’d claim the same immunity from judgment for my stance.

    This will have to be my parting post for a while. Flying out in a few hours. Could be worth checking out the details of Polanski’s case, though, if you’re not familiar with them.


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