A vicious, little knife fight of a play by Yasmina Reza becomes a claustrophobic, biting satire of middle class values via serial agoraphobe Roman Polanski. The American version (the original is, like Reza, French) of The God Of Carnage has been adapted for the screen by Reza herself with a helping hand from Polanski. The parents of two children involved in an altercation, one hit the other with a stick, in Brooklyn Bridge Park meet to discuss apologies, punishments and a possible resolution. Their differing ideals cause immediate, verbal conflict and the meeting descends into anarchy.
Bookended by scenes in the park set to the films only music the rest of the action takes place within Penelope (Foster) and Michael’s (Reilly) New York apartment. Nancy (Winslet) and Alan (Waltz) actually manage to make it to the lift in the hall twice but are pulled back, once out of politeness and the second time in anger. Polanski uses the cramped conditions and busy furnishings, all the espresso machines, coffee table books and ethnic art anyone could need, to heighten the discomfort between the couples. The camera emerges from around corners or from low angles causing the walls to move in closer and closer. Polanski has been in this situation before and the idea of confinement is one he has returned to again and again.
The scenario is expertly balanced by Reza. Nancy and Alan are comfortably the more affluent couple, Nancy makes no mention of work, Alan is a corporate lawyer, whereas Penelope is a writer and Michael a salesman. However, it is Nancy and Alan’s child thought to be at fault and they are in Michael and Penelope’s territory. All of this is expressed between the lines. Every sentence has an undercurrent and a hidden meaning often implicitly implied through tone or an arched eyebrow. The dialogue feels real as each actor gets involved, skillfully portraying their thoroughly unhappy characters without a hint of ego. Each character has their moment in the sun, a showpiece of emotion or a particularly nasty monologue and the script must have appealed in a cathartic way much like Glengarry Glen Ross.
Foster’s Penelope is the only truly liberal member of the foursome, the only one with a morality that suits the situation. As such, she gets annihilated in cross examination by the other three. Their more nihilistic, dog eat dog view of the world and their constant willingness to take the moral low ground leave Penelope sobbing and impotent. In the end money and self involvement triumph, no one learns and nothing has been solved. Indeed, their may not even have been a problem in the first place.
Watching the couples slyly insult each other, make fun of their tastes, pet names, jobs and opinions whilst pretending to be resolving the issue between their offspring is tremendously entertaining, their polite facades being knocked down then rebuilt before our very eyes. When (spoiler alert!!) Winslet’s Nancy vomits across the coffee table to the disgust of her husband and the horror of Penelope as her designer books are ruined, the shock translates across to the audience giving us a sort of mini Alien moment. Eventually, Michael gets so wound up by his own attempts to be an understanding, friendly host that he reaches for the scotch.
When the alcohol, a lovely 18 year old whiskey, starts to flow, the battle lines are redrawn and the film lurches uncomfortably into a war of the sexes. The whiskey takes effect far too fast and the foursome become far less interesting as a result, dissolving from acerbic, hidden barbs in the conversation to outraged rudeness and stubborn stupidity. The device of drunkenness is a forced and unlikely conceit, finding four fortyish year old parents all willing to drink strong liquor in the middle of the afternoon has the ring of untruth to it and finally Carnage comes off the rails, stumbling down a dark alley totally of it’s own making. Fortunately, the film realises this and comes to a sudden, totally appropriate end, salvaged partially by a skilled comic moment, some lovely pounding drums and a hamster. Carnage is three quarters (sixty minutes) of a good film and for some that will be enough.