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

Written by Richard McCulloch.

Photo from the article For a movie so preoccupied with themes of analysis and the value of critical debate, Roman Polanski’s Carnage is surprisingly difficult to write about. Its plot is straightforward enough: after two young boys - Ethan Longstreet and Zachary Cowan - are involved in a fight, their parents meet to discuss appropriate ways to resolve the matter. With the exception of a minute or two of screen time, everything takes place in the apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly), who have invited Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet) to their home for what they hope will be a mature, civilised conversation. Yet this narrative simplicity belies a self-conscious resistance to interpretation. Indeed, if the film can be said to have a ‘point’ to make, it is that critical debate is ultimately pointless.

The childrens' fight itself acts as a framing device, opening and closing the film, and providing a context to the parents’ meeting. Perhaps surprisingly, however, this appears to be the only thing it is doing. One of the reasons why Carnage will inevitably frustrate some viewers is that it is unclear what the actual purpose of the meeting is. Yes, their sons were involved in a fight, but what kind of agreement are they expecting or hoping to reach? Is this conversation necessary, or even ‘normal’? It certainly seems important that, although we see Zachary hit Ethan with a stick, the barely-audible dialogue and distant camera position prevent us from knowing whether either child deserved to be blamed. Withholding such information invites speculation, and suggests that the ensuing conversation will be geared towards finding out exactly what happened. Somewhat peculiarly, however, the film has absolutely no intention of answering such questions.


The point of comparison I consistently returned to when thinking about Carnage was Sidney Lumet’s wonderful legal drama 12 Angry Men (1957). The two films are clearly very different, yet both are notable for being shot almost entirely on one small set - the Longstreets’ apartment and a jury room, respectively. Bound by these spatial confines, characters are forced together in a way that lends itself to detailed deliberation, but also inevitable confrontation, since there is no hiding place for underlying tensions. While the eponymous twelve men cannot leave the jury room until a unanimous verdict has been decided, Carnage plays with these boundaries for comic purposes. Characters’ inability to leave the set becomes a running joke, as the Cowans make it to the Longstreets’ door on several occasions (and even, twice, to the elevators), only to somehow always be drawn back in.

12 Angry Men’s dramatic efficacy hinges on a clearly defined set of narrative questions: the defendant in the legal trial appears to be guilty, but how reliable are the witness statements? And is apparent guilt really sufficient evidence to send a man to his death? In Carnage the narrative questions are either ill-defined, unanswerable, or trivial. What little information we do have about what happened in the park between Zachary and Ethan occludes the possibility of mistaken identity or false testimony. We already know who was involved, so our uncertainty relates only to intent, and the events that preceded the fight. If Ethan goaded Zachary, or refused to let him join their ‘gang’, does that excuse Zachary’s actions? These are potentially interesting questions, but any sense we have that they might be answered is shot down within minutes of the film beginning.


Alan Cowan takes exception to Penelope Longstreet’s choice of phrasing in her version of her statement, which initially reads, ‘Zachary Cowan, aged eleven and armed with a stick’. Penelope politely accepts that the word ‘armed’ is not appropriate, and changes it to ‘carrying’, yet it is clear that Alan is already irritated. Early exchanges are entirely polite, bordering on the banal, and yet they are also strangely compelling. During these moments we learn far more about the characters’ thought processes through vocal tone and body language than through their words. When Penelope reveals that her husband had recently disposed of their daughter’s hamster by emptying the cage outside, Nancy’s line of questioning remains (relatively) civilised, yet is relentless enough to point towards her internal disgust.

Tellingly, the film concludes with a shot of Zachary, Ethan and their friends, all playing happily together. In the foreground, a hamster nibbles on an acorn. Neither revelation is at all surprising. Of course, nothing leading up to that point had made it look likely that the Longstreets and the Cowans would eventually reach an amicable agreement, but the children’s independent reconciliation renders all preceding events futile. It is thus nothing but the promise of impending chaos - the erosion of politeness and descent into anger - that propels the narrative forward, not a series of questions that need to be resolved by the end of the film. If there is no story being told here, then, how should it be categorised - or marketed?


Cinema has tended to restrict the predominantly single-location setup to dramatic narratives: Lifeboat (1944); Rope (1948); Reservoir Dogs (1992); Exam (2009); Buried (2010); Devil (2010) and 127 Hours (2010), to name just a few examples. But to describe Carnage as a drama, even a comedy-drama, seems inappropriate given the lack of, well, drama. Moreover, it might be argued that comedy is not really a genre in its own right, and is better thought of as a mode - a manner of presentation - than a more fixed or localised quantity. Carnage’s comic dimension undoubtedly dominates proceedings, but only because potential dramatic elements, which are ever-present, are consistently played down.

Distributors appear to have been similarly uncertain how to pitch Carnage to audiences, with the accompanying marketing campaign struggling to negotiate the perceived incongruity between comedy and seriousness. Polanski’s name is foregrounded as much as the stars’, speaking to an implied target market of cinephiles, while the film’s posters and trailers work hard to highlight the film’s playful lampooning of the liberal middle classes. One poster confusingly pairs the rather-sinister sounding tagline, ‘Smiles will fade. Tempers will rise. Carnage will rule’ with a critic’s quotation that reads, ‘One of the funniest films of the year’…

The pleasures on offer may be slightly unusual, but nevertheless they are clear: Come and see four people try to be polite to each other, and laugh as how miserably they fail! The twist, however, is that the likely audience will effectively be laughing at itself, like a self-conscious, middle class reimagining of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. As Penelope appropriately yells at her husband, ‘That’s enough mitigating. We’re only superficially fair-minded, so let’s not be fair-minded at all!'

This Alternate Take was published on March 24, 2012.

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