The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Carnage

Reviewed by Richard McCulloch.

Director Roman Polanski
Length 79 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Trailer.

I have written previously on this site about some of the problems that go along with assigning numerical scores to film reviews. While I can see their appeal, I find that they can often be misleading, and certainly don’t tell us anything about why a particular film is good or bad. This is particularly true in the case of Roman Polanski’s Carnage, which, like its four protagonists, defies easy description at every turn.

The film tells the story of two sets of parents - Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly), and Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet) - brought together over a dispute between their respective sons, Ethan and Zachary. The incident leaves Zachary with several bruises and broken teeth after being hit with a stick, but we are deliberately denied enough information to apportion any blame to either child. Everything that follows takes place within the confines of the Longstreets’ apartment, as the four parents attempt to have a civilised discussion about how best to resolve their sons’ conflict. Early pleasantries are dripping with insincerity and boredom, as the Cowans find it especially difficult to mask their thinly-veiled contempt at having to be there. Sure enough, these facades soon crumble like Penelope Longstreet’s peach cobbler, and attempted maturity eventually gives way to the carnage promised by the title.

Polanski co-wrote the screenplay with Yasmina Reza, writer of God of Carnage, the play upon which Carnage is based. And the film certainly feels like a stage adaptation. The trappings of the set, the unnaturally structured dialogue, the sound design, and the lack of off-screen action all accentuate the characters’ own feelings of awkwardness, but will undoubtedly also make the film difficult to engage with for some viewers. We are, after all, being invited to share in the parents’ collective discomfort.

The narrative structure - or, rather, the lack of one - may also be a cause for consternation. Rather than promising a resolution to the conflict, events are propelled forward entirely by the characters’ descent into childish behaviour. Each of them constantly forges allegiances, breaks them, and then makes new ones, meaning that any attachment we develop towards them is only ever temporary. Lacking the parental bias that the Longstreets and Cowans feel towards their children, our own allegiances are free to wander constantly from character to character. Were it not for the outstanding performances on display, this approach might be far less appealing. Christoph Waltz is particularly well cast as the curt Alan Cowan, delivering his lines with the same sense of disconcertingly polite menace he exuded as Colonel Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds (2009). He and Reilly form an amusing double act, at each other’s throats one minute, and somehow believably amicable the next. Foster also deserves a special mention, as she gives her best performance in a long time as the character that clings hardest to her own idealism. The strained sinews of her eventual frustration are a sight to behold, even though we are rarely sure whether to feel sympathetic or wallow in schadenfreude.

Carnage is a curious example of a film that asks a great deal of questions without really attempting to answer any of them. To me, this approach works extremely well in the context of a story that revolves so explicitly around themes of interpretation. It feels strange, however, attempting to review something that is so keen to highlight the futility of neutral analysis. I have awarded the film a total score of 8 out of 10, but really, who knows what it deserves? Opinions will surely be divided; but please, let’s keep any disagreements civilised.

This review was published on February 19, 2012.

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