In a cosy apartment in New York, two sets of parents are typing up an account of a scuffle between their two eleven year old sons. They’re civilised people after all, and it’s much better to sort these blips out personally rather than get an unpleasant authority involved, isn’t it? It seems that after an argument, one boy struck the other armed with the branch of a tree, causing some damage to the – “Would we say armed?” interrupts polished and preened monther Nancy (Kate Winslet), politely. The others stare at her, then scramble to offer their support: “No, no not necessarily,” offers Penelope (Jodie Foster), mother of the victim, “how about ‘carrying a’? Does ‘carrying a stick’ sound better?” ‘Carrying a’ does sound better. Smiles all round. See how easy it is to get along?
It’s not difficult to see why Roman Polanski was drawn to this knotty little tale of domestic warfare; an epic battle trapped within four walls. Intimate, uncomfortable portraits of human nature are basically Polanski’s speciality; after all, he was the one to give us the desperately tense The Ghost as well as, of course, the claustrophobic horror that was Rosemary’s Baby. Carnage, essentially a gleeful exploration of how easy it is for our carefully built up civility to come crashing down, is a thoroughly enjoyable film showcasing all its (mega)stars on top form. It also, quite obviously, would work much better on a stage. The farcical comedy Carnage employs, combined with the deliciously, delicately ever-growing tension begs for an immediate response from its audience, and you can’t help but feel that this is a project made rather guiltily for the sheer fun of it, rather than to serve a cinematic purpose. Still.
Christoph Waltz and Kate Wislet play Alan and Nancy Cowan, two high-flying executives who are brought into the lives – and the apartment – of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C Reilly and Jodie Foster), when an dispute between their sons results in violence. Perfectly preened, impatient and icily polite, Alan and Nancy are full of firm apologies for their son’s behaviour, and only hope they can put the thing to right. Cheerful, bluff and sure of his own big-heartedness, Michael Longstreet too is sure that the whole thing can be forgotten. His wife Penelope, staunch believer in the powers of Good, Evil, Justice and Forgiveness is in total agreement; confident that between the four of them, they can come to some plan of action. Except, obviously, they definitely wont.
It doesn’t take long – one dodgy piece of pear cobbler, in fact – for the facade of civility to be dropped, for accusations to bubble and for prejudices to burst from the murky depths of each apparent adult. Foster is particularly glorious as the sanctimonious, pinched and hysterical Penelope; reduced from an apparently benevolent, caring mother to a ridiculous, melodramatic harpy whose only solace is her confidence in her own brilliance. Reilly provides the perfect buffer as the apparently soft-hearted husband who – it becomes only too clear – has had more than enough of his wife’s Do-Gooding. Christoph Waltz’s Alan lets it all slide off him with greasy, cruel ambivalence until his precious Blackberry bears the brunt of the collective frustration, and as the day draws on, the booze flows and allegiances are formed and dissolved almost too swiftly to register, the only thing that can be relied on to have any staying power is Nancy’s perfectly applied lipstick.
It’s funny, it’s messy, it’s silly and it’s performed with aplomb and great satisfaction. Sadly though, it all feels as though we’re building towards a climax that never really appears. Taking us on exactly the arc we knew it would, the ending of Carnage splutters and dies rather than fires with full force; the inevitable consequence of trying to heighten the drama of something inherently stage-worthy simply by sticking a camera towards it. Still, for the most part Carnage is a breezy pleasure; dark, comic, well-made and insightful. It might just be a bit of cunning self-indulgence on the part of Polasnki et al, but that doesn’t make it any less fun.