The king of claustrophobia Roman Polanski is back as he plunges us into the middle of a class war between two sets of parents brought together through a school yard brawl. Yasmina Reza's adapted play (Originally titled Gods of Carnage) breaks down the social constructs, cliches, and lies that all too often form our perception of what adult life should be. It succeeds on this level but feels like it should have more weight, somethings lacking, it needs more bite.
In a breezy upbeat title sequence the credits are displayed over a gang of kids in a New York playground. When the titles cease, one boy armed with a stick strikes another boy in the face dropping him to the ground. Cut to the next scene and we're in the home of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster), it was their boy who was attacked and so they've invited the attacking boy's parents round to discuss the matter like adults should. Alan and Nancy Cowan are played by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet, Alan is an attorney defending an unfortunate drug and Nancy is a stock broker whereas Penelope is a writer on African culture and Michael a hardware salesman. Is any of this information important? It probably shouldn't be but we'll let the four of them decide that.
Once we're dropped into the Longstreet residence it soon becomes clear that we're not going to leave for some time. What follows is an unsettling 80minutes of increasing pandemonium and tension that the infamous director of Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby has no problem in creating. Alan and Nancy make it into the outside hallway several times but always seem destined for them to re-enter the apartment of a couple they've just met and frankly don't like. The film's satiric themes and claustrophobic setting strikes a huge comparison with Luis Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962), a film that viciously (in typical Bunuelian cynicism) takes apart the facade of high social standing among the bourgeois and the Catholic church by forcing them to stay in the same room, no one knows why but they just can't leave, thus after some time we see them for what they really are - immoral selfish animals no different from the rest.
What at first starts out as a conversation of manners and hidden digs soon evolves into something more honest and unashamedly offensive. By the end we see them drunk (thanks to the introduction of Michael's 18 year old Scotch), very unhappy, and acting like petulant infants criticising each other's line of work, taking the moral high-ground over each other wherever possible, and vomiting over priceless pieces of literature.
The script is tight, the pacing is brisk and to the point. Christoph Waltz makes the film with his unapologetic smugness and his constant interrupting of matters due to his work phone, John C. Reilly is a pleasure to watch as usual and his trademark man-child like persona is suitably fitting here. In one of the revealing moments his character shouts that Penelope had dressed him up as a Republican just for their meeting when he's really a "short tempered son of a bitch" and goes straight to the drinks cabinet. Kate Winslet is by no means unimpressive here but given her stellar career thus far it can't be helped but feel role of Nancy is slightly below her, and Jodie Foster despite starting well does grate slightly when the overacting kicks in.
Carnage never hits the heights it could have, never leaving a level of comfort that would make for a more thrilling 80minutes thus losing its teeth much like the Longstreet's son. It plays well and is very entertaining with some interesting insights but it never gets lost down in the murkiness of its subject matter, we're left wanting more carnage than what's on offer.
Unlike the great Bunuel, Carnage doesn't leave a bad taste in the mouth afterwards because it just isn't spiteful or revealing enough. Michael, Penelope, Alan, and Nancy seem destined to fight it out even though they really could leave at any time, perhaps their reason for not doing so stems back to the film's simple message - that we are all children; we never really grow up and mature we simply just become more complicated and disillusioned. The final shot shows the boys making it up and playing together in the end, oh how simple it once was to be a child. Children can be unkind, they can be cruel, but they have an honesty that gets lost as age sets in. We see four adults attempting to 'do the right thing' but as the final image reveals, perhaps their children did a better job without the hassle. A simple sorry was all it took and if this is the case then the film begs the question - why do us adults make everything so tragically complicated?
For fans of:
Rope (1948), The Exterminating Angel (1962), The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie (1972)