There are films that I want to like so, so very much, and Carnage is one of them. The fact that all the right ingredients—a Tony-winning play, a famed auteur, A-list talent—resulted in a mediocre exercise in uncontrolled social degeneration proves that cinema cannot be explained via reductionism. Some things simply look better in theory than in practice.
Directed by Roman Polanski and based on Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage, the film revolves around two couples: the Cowans (Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet), whose son has hit the son of the Longstreets (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly) with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth. The “action” takes place entirely in the Longstreet’s bourgeois luxury high-rise. The view is prettier than the conversation; the meeting, initiated in the spirit of civilized rapprochement, foreseeably devolves to quips and snips, then full-out verbal warfare.
These people wear Prada, discuss African art, smoke Cubans, and there is an undeniable sense of pleasure in watching the upper-middle class airs dissolve into something bestial and chaotic. Yet, therein also lies the problem: while such a script would be captivating in a theatrical setting, under the proximity of the camera such villainy demands subterfuge, and Polanski failed in reining back the performances of his actors. Waltz, best known as the sociopathic Nazi Hans Landa in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, exhibits all the disdain from that role without the discipline, and at moments looks ready to sink fangs in Foster’s neck. For her part, Foster’s overly emotional surface liberal finds that awkward territory of being pathetic without being sympathetic. Perhaps the one who came closest to a refined performance was Winslet—though, as the subordinated wife, she got off easy.
The screenplay, which was adapted from the script by both Polanski and Reza, was sharp at times and stilted at others; it’s unclear whether that’s a result of translating from the original French, or of translating from stage to screen. Certainly, the characterizations did not benefit from the more obtuse exchanges. Once social convention has been stripped away (with aged whisky as the catalyst), the film moves into philosophical ground in the third act, yet for all the submersion in the darkness of human nature, the closing shot suggests an insidious pointlessness to the exercise.
The one saving grace is the cinematography. Pawel Edelman, who also worked on Oscar winners The Pianist and The New Tenants, makes the film look great, with immaculate frames that also provide the film’s only forays into subtlety.
It should shock no one that people sometimes marry the wrong person, that some don’t truly hold the values that they appear to endorse, that the upper-middle class is frequently caricatured as irritatingly shallow. Is this all that the playwright has to articulate? Then I realized that Ms. Reza’s reach exceeded beyond mere storytelling; that, by eliciting the endorsement of the viewer through their laughter and pleasure, she wishes to make the viewer complicit in the characters’ despicability, and is turning a critical eye on our own thin veneer of convention. We’re all gods of carnage, and we ought to celebrate it. You can make of that how you will.