It’s not that often that you can pinpoint the source of a film. Obviously there are some films you know are based on books or plays, but if you had absolutely no knowledge of that film whatsoever, its origins might prove a little more difficult to ascertain. However, Carnage is so obviously based on a play that it might as well have curtains rise before it starts.
It’s an incredibly simple story: two couples gets together to discuss a fight that has broke out between their sons. What starts off as a relatively amicable meeting soon descends into chaos as tensions run high, each couple refuses to accept their child was responsible and there’s a particularly nasty case of vomiting from her that was in Titanic.
Plot-wise there isn’t much more to it than that. It is little more than a series of uncomfortable and awkward scenes, set in ‘real-time’, as these ‘normal’ suburban families are slowly revealed to be a facade; a mass of insecurities and flaws that they do their utmost to hide away. Its theatrical roots (Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage) are plain to see: the film is set in a single apartment, often in one room, and features just four characters of equal billing; it’s all very straightforward. Very much a character examination, there’s no exuberance and no pazzaz, except for a well-written script and impressive performances.
The two couples are of very different backgrounds – Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslett) are the upper end of middle class, with their smarter clothes and higher powered jobs, whilst Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly) are at the other end, with their modest apartment and what would be perceived more regular jobs. However, the film makes the point that all these characters are flawed in some way regardless of their backgrounds and that they inevitably end up acting no better than their children. In fact, their children are nothing more than a sub plot to the parents’ games of oneupmanship and desire to appear superior.
Carnage is director Roman Polanski’s Bunuel-esque attack on the middle class (that Alan and Nancy seem unable to leave the apartment harks back to The Exterminating Angel) as neither of the families come out of the film with any kind of redeeming qualities. They place far too much importance on trivial things, whether it be fancy art books or the ingredients of a cobbler. They don’t really seem that concerned with addressing the real issue of their fighting children; Alan spends most of his time on the phone, Nancy seems more preoccupied with Michael’s treatment of the family hamster, Penelope constantly tries to out-Cowan the Cowans, and Michael (for the most part) is happy to just go along with whatever.
With such a simple story and location, there is nothing to hide behind and in a film such as Carnage, the actors are under greater pressure to pull superior performances out of the bag. In this case they are moderately successful, but it is the males who really stand out. Both John C Reilly and Christoph Waltz outshine their female counterparts with impressive performances that keep the film ticking along. Both female characters are somewhat less inspiring, and Jodie Foster in particular can be a little hammy at times. Despite that, the quartet work well together and they do well with a script that has peaks and troughs; it can sometimes get a little slow but overall is witty and helps provide an intriguing examination of the characters.
The film has a claustrophobic quality to it, thanks in part to its singular environment, that may not be to everyone’s tastes, but persevere and you’ll find a film that provides a deeper social commentary for those who want to delve into it and a more lighthearted take on relationships and parenting for those who want to take it at face value.
Words: Chris Thomson