Carnage is an adaptation of a successful play, but the movie is pure Roman Polanski, with a touch of Luis Buñuel. Four people seem trapped together in an apartment, unable to split apart despite rising hostilities. Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) play host to Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz).
We meet them as they have finished drafting a statement about an altercation between their two sons that resulted in injury to one of them, presumably so that they will be in official agreement for insurance purposes. But after they've written out the narrative, they keep arguing. Should the aggressor apologize to his victim, whether or not the apology is sincere? Was it a normal schoolyard scuffle or a case of one human being disfiguring another? Is "disfigure" too strong a word for what happened?
And why, for God's sake, don't the Cowans just leave?
For his whole career, Polanski has been interested in domestic interiors and how they take hold of his characters. This is most apparent in his "Apartment Trilogy" of Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant, in which mental states are threatened by living arrangements. But it remains a pet theme throughout his filmography. In Death and the Maiden, a woman holds a stranger prisoner in her home. The Pianist is a story of running for freedom by locking oneself up in a series of apartments, until the walls of one of them literally caves in. In Polanski's last movie, The Ghost Writer, the shifting accommodations offered to the title character illustrate the way he's being casually imprisoned. You get the feeling that even if the material doesn't call for it, Polanski finds a way to foreground living spaces as menacing traps.
In Carnage, this concern with captivity makes the material absurd and funny while working as a critique of social niceties and upper-class political posturing. Polanski's version of Carnage (from a screenplay by Yasmina Reza, adapting her own play God of Carnage) finds its roots not as much in his own history of movies about interiors as in Buñuel's Exterminating Angel, in which guests at a dinner party can't bring themselves to leave their host's home, held there by unseen forces.
Polanski's Carnage has made some telling additions to the stage version, including a hallway with an elevator and a cramped study inside the apartment. Twice, the Cowans make it to the elevator on their way out before again finding themselves in the apartment, sucked back in by the niceties that don't allow them to argue in front of the neighbors and a barking dog. Polanski emphasizes the comedy of the Cowans' inability to leave, making it as much the subject of the movie as marital tensions, the dispute over the kids or conflicting life philosophies.
The small study is also an important new space; it's where the civil-but-tense couples have written the statement at the film's outset, hunched together over a computer. Opening the movie in a small study calls attention to the way the characters will spread out later across more open frames in the spacious living room, allowing Polanski to use the frame to carve the space up into territories.
When Alan repeatedly takes calls from work, Polanski isolates him in a roomy widescreen as he reclines on the strangers' furniture. Waltz luxuriates in these open frames, making Alan's ease insinuate something offensive. In the reverse angle, Alan's wife Nancy is stuck with Penelope and Michael, perched on the edge of the couch, trying to be polite. The movie is full of these meaningful groupings: Polanski doesn't use conventional shot-reverse-shot but films most conversations from at least three angles, so that he can regroup characters within the same moment, underlining the slipperiness of their allegiances and their inability to navigate the social code that should be determining their actions.
The addition of the cramped study to the set also points to the petit bourgeois leanings of the Longstreets: Michael likes to say Penelope is a writer, and she enjoys making a fuss about her art books, but their study is shoved into a closet so that they can have room for two couches and a large coffee table in the living area. Penelope claims to be writing a book about Darfur, which Alan treats as a frivolous act of political correctness. Penelope looks awful in this altercation, as Foster contorts her face into pained grimaces and simpers that she "know[s] all about suffering in Africa!" Alan's amoral sneering starts to seem accurate rather than nasty.
As the other characters' upright façades crumble, Alan's easiness around the Longstreets makes him almost sympathetic, which is a remarkable near-achievement considering that the character is a lawyer specializing in damage control and liability avoidance for Big Pharma. In a sly hint that Polanski might also side with Alan, he casts his own son as the junior Cowan. As the father of the boy in question, Polanski is Alan. And perhaps most importantly in a comedy about being trapped, Alan is the only one who was ready to leave as soon as they finished the statement. The whole charade, during which no one learns anything, never would have happened had everyone followed Alan's sensible, anti-social lead.
When worldviews are debated, it's Alan—who cares about nothing—who sounds the most reasonable, looks the most composed and gets to deliver the line of dialogue that provides the title. (He wins this reviewer's heart when he challenges Penelope on her use of a superfluous adverb.) In a world ruled by the God of Carnage, especially through Polanski's lens, keeping up the niceties and debating moral codes is all a bunch of posing that will keep you trapped, and in Polanski's universe, that's never a good thing. The best you can do is get the hell out before you find you start caring too much, which will make you a permanent prisoner.
Visit our arts blog Artery for a review of The Iron Lady, which also opens this weekend.