The typical lament with stage productions moved to the silver screen is that they are nothing more than “photographed plays.” And this notion at its root, more often than not, is probably correct. Roman Polanski’s cinematic adaptation of Yasminza Reza’s God Of Carnage could aptly be described as a “photographed play.” It comes across “stagy”, I suppose, on account of its setting being (basically) entirely within a New York apartment, though Polanski does a shrewd and admirable job of keeping the situation fairly fresh and switching up shots and angles without ever having to get all gimmicky.
But if Carnage, at its root, is merely a “photographed play”, I ask: what’s wrong with that? Here, we get to see a dynamic quartet – three Oscar winners and one Oscar nominee – unleash their profound acting skills non-stop for an hour and twenty minutes up close which allows us to savor facial expressions and body language that much more than you might be able to a Broadway theater where your seats are back near the exit signs.
One boy has hit another boy with a stick, causing him to loose two teeth. The parents of the “victim”, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) Longstreet invite the parents of the “armed” boy, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) Cowan, over to discuss the matter. They do and they both simply agree they want the two boys to meet and for an apology to be given, and initially that seems like it will more than do the trick. The Cowans then get set to depart.
In the Midwest we have this thing known as The Long Goodbye. This is where you say goodbye to people you have been visiting at the front door for 10 minutes and then you say goodbye to them at the car for another 10 minutes and then you say goodbye from inside the car with your windows rolled down for another 2, 3 minutes. Carnage lends itself some dramatic juice with a New York version of The Long Goodbye, whereby the Cowans keep getting to the door – sometimes into the hall and nearly to the elevator – but the Longstreets keep inviting them back in, for cobbler and for coffee and to talk just a little bit more. And with each unsuccessful escape, the closer the two couples come to revealing their true feelings, not just on the topic at hand but with each other, with their respective spouses, with the world in general.
Each actor has a game face in these early sequences, trying to maintain a facade described later as “pleasant serenity.” Each character has an opinion and each character keeps that true opinion hidden for sake of civility, though cracks in the civility are detected immediately. Waltz’s attempts, in particular, to be cordial are comically poor, undone by the cellphone calls he continually fields, causing him to ignore everyone else in the room. Winslet never fails to come across early on as someone putting on a show, feigning interest, desperate to flee, and the way she glowers at her husband when he talks, as if anticipating the stupid thing he’s going to say, are side-splitting. Reilly is amiable and intent on making everyone get along, the jovial insistence, not surprisingly, masking something deep-seated. Foster is smiley and chatty, though the smile gets more and more forced (which means it gets bigger and bigger) every second and her jaw line becomes so rigid it nearly becomes a weapon. The more in-touch she wants to be seen, the more out-of-touch we know she is.
Things deteriorate, as they must, and in what precise ways I won’t reveal. First, the men and the women turn on one another. Then both couples unite and turn on the other one. Then the two men unite and the two women unite and turn on one another. Before long cobbler and coffee turns into several helpings of scotch and it turns into every man or woman for him or herself.
The acting is uniformly outstanding. The direction keeps things flowing until the flow is pointedly meant to stop (though a few points must be subtracted for that wretched bit of third grade symbolism involving a family pet right there at the end). Consider the shot where Waltz is favored in the left part of the frame while consulting a client on his phone while Winslet’s hand – only her hand – dangles in the right corner of the frame, as if pondering whether or not it should reach out and strangle its “better half”. The writing is good and revels in some phenomenal zingers, but does have one bit of false drama that goes on too long. Make no mistake, the outlook of Carnage is ultimately and aggressively bleak. Despite our best efforts to live in “pleasant serenity” we are, in reality, only “superficially fair-minded,” discussing Darfur while locked away in the comfort of our own existences from which, essentially, as the movie’s claustrophobic staging suggests, we never leave.
Yeah, so I guess Carnage, in theory, is pretty depressing. But damn, man, with these actors at the wheel it goes down smooth. It’s a poison-filled treat.