Roman Polanski’s filmic output in recent years has been far from prolific. Since Oliver Twist back in 2005, he only got back to film-making last year with The Ghost Writer; a film that lacked Polanski’s usual socially-scathing edge. With Carnage Polanski returns to form, condensing social frustrations, failed attempts at civility, and mid-life bitterness into one room crammed with four brilliant actors.
Carnage‘s plot is better off described as a single scenario. Two children have a scuffle, with the result being that one gets some teeth knocked out with a stick. In an optimistic attempt to resolve things like civilised adults, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), the parents of the injured child, arrange a get-together with the Cowans (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) to decide what should be done about their children’s misbehaviour. In a compact 79-minute running time, the four adults grow increasingly frustrated at their miscommunication with each other, and the film evolves into a sardonic critique of seemingly respectable human beings.
Polanski does a great job in making each of the characters unique, each representing different aspects of the bad side of human nature. Jodie Foster, who just beats Christoph Waltz in delivering the film’s best performance, has delusions of civility and moral superiority that quickly get shattered by those around her. Waltz’s Alan Cowan is unpretentiously cold and realistic about the human tendency towards violence, watching with an amused distance as those around him descend into chaos. John C. Reilly degenerates from a dim, happy-go-lucky family man to a shameless savage, laughing mercilessly as he talks about the hopelessness of children and marriage. Kate Winslet, meanwhile, is a tightly-wound ball of repressed anger which comes undone as the booze begins to flow.
Taking place entirely in one increasingly claustrophobic apartment (a hark back to Polanski’s apartment films, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant), the film is driven by sharp dialogue and motifs rather than a developing plot or fancy camera-work. Polanski frames the characters exquisitely but unobtrusively, giving a constant commentary on the fleeting power dynamics and allegiances that exist at any given moment in the film.
The film’s intrigue stems from seeing the ugly truth behind each character rapidly unravel, and the use of seemingly innocent objects as means of exposing them. The unrelenting dialogue is supplemented by the recurrence of objects that exacerbate the growing sense of frustration in the film. Generic symbols of middle-class stability – cake, tulips, art books and Alan’s incessant interruptions of proceedings to answer his phone – all layer on the mutual resentment between the characters, and add to the masochistic comicality of the whole situation.
Carnage is both frustrating and fun to watch. Whenever Alan’s phone interrupts the action, and the characters sit in tense silence waiting for him to return, we also feel tense and pissed off. You can’t help but feel that a plucky director like Polanski orchestrated this film in a way that we ourselves feel a bit maddened by human social ineptitude by the end of it. With no soundtrack and camerawork that’s gently insinuating rather than outright accusing, this film has something of a laboratory feel about it. The aim: to find out what happens when you put four people with different agendas in a room to resolve a seemingly simple issue. The result: well, carnage, obviously.