If there’s one thing Roman Polanski knows, it’s claustrophobia.
While the majority of his films have taken on the characteristics of the horror and thriller variant, Carnage remains a bleakly humorous approach at another type of horror: marital conflict.
I almost couldn’t believe Polanski was the one behind the lens for this title. He certainly showed his ability to break free from any artistic restraint you might think exists. The man who made Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion and Chinatown made this very slick chamber comedy based on Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage? Sure he did.
What’s even more relevant to the discussion though is the fact that earlier in his career, Polanski had an “apartment trilogy” with his film’s Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion and The Tenant. He isn’t a stranger to controlling his films to a claustrophobic environment and Carnage, which is set only inside an apartment, is another example. Another earlier film, Knife in the Water, was mostly constrained to a boat in the middle of a body of water. While all films had an obvious escape for the characters, they were each restrained by something inherently deep inside of them.
In Carnage, two couples try to meet civilly to talk about an altercation between their sons in the playground. What starts as a rather civilized yet painfully facetious interaction between two sets of parents wanting to put an end to a terrible ordeal turns into an argument that digs beyond a schoolyard fight.
Polanski directs Jodie Foster and John Reilly as Penelope and Michael, parents of the victim, and Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as Nancy and Alan, parents of the victimizer. There’s more than enough detail to get into for each of the four characters considering the fact that they are the only ones in the very contained film. I’d rather not spoil each person’s actions and the things that set them off. Those are all much worth watching for.
I will say that Waltz stole the show with his subdued but hilarious performance that fit his style perfectly. Once the film turns into a battle of marriages instead of an argument about their children’s playground fight, Foster and Winslet drive to the forefront of the action with incredibly funny and painful performances as they loathe their husbands disregard. Reilly sort of takes a back seat, but he remains a provoking rock in the grand scheme of things. What the script does is provide a perfect amount of hard verbal assault and comic relief to balance it off. When things get dark, the phone rings, and so on. The two sides of light and dark compliment one another nicely here.
What begins as a disagreement over which child started the fight first and who deserved what turns into a deeper conflict that triggers arguments over personality, relationships and unsavory truths. Seemingly agreeable and perfect marriages start to unravel slowly. Once the alcohol starts flowing, the parents turn into the children they agreed to not become earlier in the film. The results are fascinating – and hilarious – but also sad. There’s nothing you want to relate to with these characters, which is a rare positive aspect.
Polanski’s track record certainly doesn’t lead to this sort of film – a solely dialogue-driven dark chamber comedy. His direction isn’t indicative of his stories past, but you can tell someone trained is behind the camera here. There’s a reason why chamber dramas and comedies aren’t always successful. It takes a patient and veteran eye to sustain performances and keep things alive. Polanski does a fine job of making sure he gets the most out of his four stars as they clash inside a small apartment.
Carnage didn’t get as much play as most of Polanski’s previous films have, and that shouldn’t be unexpected. This isn’t about a demon child, it doesn’t star Johnny Depp as a book collector and it doesn’t have the twist and turns of The Ghost Writer. But it is a fascinating social experiment and a bleak comedy I will remember for awhile.