CARNAGE is a razor sharp, biting comedy centered on parental differences. After two boys duke it out on a playground, the parents of the "victim" invite the parents of the "bully" over to work out their issues. A polite discussion of childrearing soon escalates into verbal warfare, with all four parents revealing their true colors. None of them will escape the carnage.
Just like Michael Jackson and Joe Paterno, director Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown) will always be known more for the troubles that have rocked his personal life than the successful output of his professional career. Polanski's name is so synonymous with scandal that many people forget that he makes great movies. In a day and age of James Cameron 3-D and Michael Bay explosions, Polanski's Carnage proves that a great movie can be made with just a clever script, a talented cast and a single room.
Carnage is the story of two sets of parents whose sons have gotten into a playground fight. Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster from The Silence of the Lambs and John C. Reilly from Boogie Nights) have invited Nancy and Alan Cowan (Titanic's Kate Winslet and Inglourious Basterds' Christoph Waltz) over to their apartment to discuss the fight, which resulted in the Cowan's son knocking out two of the Longstreet boy's teeth with a stick. The four start out discussing the incident rationally, with the Longstreets asking for the Cowans to have their son apologize. The discussion goes through several phases, until it stops being about the two boys and becomes all about the parents.
Carnage does not have much of a story. However, the film is completely character driven, and with the assembled cast and the well-written characters, the lack of plot is not an issue. The audience has such a great time watching the character arcs develop that they hardly even notice the thin storyline. That's not to say that nothing happens; on the contrary, there is plenty of action, just not bullets and octane action - more like verbal sparring and mental manipulation action. Marital alliances shift to male-female ones once the guys start talking about their childhoods, and sides switch again once an eighteen-year-old bottle of scotch is introduced. The alcohol brings out the honesty in the characters, with results that are simultaneously shocking and hilarious. The viewer feels like a fly on the wall, and Carnage delivers more entertainment than should be allowed without leaving the apartment's living room.
Carnage was adapted from Yasmina Reza's play "God of Carnage" by Reza and Roman Polanski. It's an amazing character study into what happens when grown men and women put cordiality aside and become confrontational while still trying to keep civil. The film is propelled along mostly by dialogue, but that doesn't make it hard to watch. The lines flow so effortlessly that it seems almost improvised, except that no improvised conversation would wrap itself up around itself so frequently or humorously. Reza writes her characters so that the audience can relate to something in each one of them, and that's what makes them so accessible. When the audience laughs at the characters, they are inadvertently making fun of themselves. Carnage is a black comedy, with writing that is smart, razor-sharp and funny in a way that makes the viewer feel guilty for laughing.
When an entire film is basically set in one room, all that the audience has to relate to is the script and the actors. Polanski brought the script, and all of the actors in Carnage come through with flying colors. It's a good thing, too, because if there was even one weak link in the cast of four, the film would completely lose its effectiveness. Not only is every member of the cast great individually, but the ensemble itself has a chemistry that, if not for the interesting camera angles, would make the film feel like watching a group of friends sitting around, alternately arguing and agreeing, laughing and crying. The marital bonds between the couples feel real as do the gender bonds between the men and women. There is no real lead or support roles, just a skilled ensemble cast whose members work as well individually as they do in the group.
Roman Polanski approaches Carnage almost as if it is a stage play. With the help of cinematographer Pawel Edelman (who also worked with Polanski on The Pianist, The Ghost Writer and Oliver Twist), Polanski accepts the challenge of the single room set and fills the movie with creative staging and inventive camera angles, keeping the repetitive backdrop fresh with new looks. In several shots, the camera will frame up two characters at the same time, one in the foreground and the other in the back, exaggerating the symbolic distance between them in the closed-in quarters. In other shots, characters will be in the same frame, but paying attention to different things or people, also magnifying the size of the small room in which the film takes place. And there's this mirror that is used to capture character reaction and interaction so often, it's surprising that the camera never ends up mistakenly being caught in it. Polanski uses theatrical staging techniques to emphasize the gaps between the characters in such a tight location, and he does it amazingly well.