Carnage, an adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play God Of Carnage, is Roman Polanski’s latest cinematic effort in his somewhat bizarre and tumultuous career. Having done fairly well with his last film, The Ghost, which followed the largely negative feelings for his Oliver Twist adaptation, the stakes, and hopes, for Carnage were a little higher.
The film follows an unfolding and impossibly expanding conversation between two pairs of parents, the Longstreets and the Cowans, who are brought into dialogue together due to an altercation in the playground at school between their two young sons.
Their children’s fight caused the Longstreet’s boy to lose two of his teeth, and as such, the parents get together to discuss in a civilised manner what should be done about the situation. However, as the conversation unfolds, things get less and less civilised as the adults start to act like warring children themselves, arguing more and more about themselves and less and less about their kids.
Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play Michael and Penelope Longstreet with Kate Winslet and Christopher Waltz cast as Nancy and Alan Cowan respectively, and as is the case with most play adaptations the emphasis within Carnage is very much on these actor’s performances.
Each in their own way deliver taut and well developed expressions of each character. Reilly a generous and by turns bumbling fool, Foster a nervous wreck, Waltz a chauvinistic and selfishly indifferent businessman, and Winslet a conservative and immaculately presented ‘wealth manager’.
As their conversation develops, the Cowans repeatedly make efforts to leave the Longstreets’ flat, but each couple’s initial desire to resolve the situation between their sons draws them back into the apartment within which the entire film is set (with the exception of the opening and closing titles).
This extremely limited spatial grounding works well in creating a claustrophobic environment for the characters to rub each other up and down the wrong and occasionally right ways, resulting in a series of boiling points being reached as the film progresses. Kate Winslet throwing her guts up all over the coffee table is a particular highlight.
However, whilst the singularity of location lends itself naturally well to the stage, it becomes tedious and flat within this cinematic context. Polanski’s camera doesn’t seem to probe or engage with the characters’ interactions, it instead quite passively and reservedly sits back as events unfold, simply cutting in a fairly conventional shot-reverse-shot manner for the entire film.
Whilst I usually have nothing against a conserved directional style, in regards to Carnage, it seems peculiar. It raises the question as to what the point was of adapting a play so perfectly suited for the stage if you’re not going to utilise the cinematic apparatus to lend the text something fresh, distinctive and individual.
Indeed, just as the characters are seemingly unable to remove themselves from the flat, the film itself is unable to transport itself beyond its theatrical origins and fails to achieve anything uniquely cinematic that couldn’t have been explored as effectively on stage. Which all renders the entire exercise of adapting God Of Carnage somewhat redundant.
In spite of Carnage’s disappointing lack of cinematic vision, it does manage to at least in part fulfil its primary function as a comedy. Reilly and Waltz both provide some entertaining light laughs throughout the film, and Waltz’s rude arrogance with the multitude of business calls he inappropriately answers stand out most pertinently as crowd pleasers.
Yet these laughs are unfortunately few and far between, coming out as peculiarly secluded one liners that belie where the comedy would be more congruously placed – through the characters’ dialogue and synergy.
The issues with the film’s construction of humour highlights one of Carnage’s biggest problems. Although each actor imbues their role with individualistic charm, and each part feels appropriately multi-faceted for a film with only four characters in it, their interactions with one another feel strained and synthetic. You’re constantly very aware that you’re watching a film, not in a clever self-referential sense but through its failings to make the character’s extensive communication seem organic or believable.
Whilst the original play was obviously one continuous unified performance, this adaptation truncates such continuity through the editing process, fracturing and disrupting the performances which are so endemic to the text’s power.
Polanski’s inability to either eloquently, realistically or idiosyncratically depict the couples’ seismically shifting vocal to and fro recalls a moment towards the end of the film where Winslet cries out “what the hell are we still doing here!?”. Perfectly articulating what I’d been thinking after the first twenty or so minutes: what the hell are they still doing there? It just doesn’t seem believable.
Carnage clocks in at around 75 minutes which, instead of suggesting an uncompromisingly tight narrative structure, seems to accurately showcase that this film doesn’t really have anything interesting to show or say. There are laughs and knowing smiles layered into the film here and there, but Carnage’s inability to propel itself beyond its history on stage renders it falling somewhat flat on its face, despite good intentions and some fun performances.
Still, regardless of the film’s failings it is a very easy watch with some equally easy laughs. It is not entirely without merit. And if you like the idea of a bunch of adults bickering, getting drunk, crying and intermittently throwing up, then by all means go and see it. For me? I just couldn’t help but feel it was a bit of a waste of time.