Roman Polanski’s 2011 dramedy Carnage is probably one of his most lighthearted affairs. Succeeding Polanski’s 2010 political thriller The Ghost Writer, Carnage is an adaptation of the critically-acclaimed stage play God of Carnage by playwright Yasmina Reza (who co-wrote the film adaptation with Polanski). The play’s first notable run began in England in 2008 with Oscar nominees Ralph Fiennes and Janet McTeer, before expanding to Broadway in 2009 with James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden who won the Tony for her performance while the play itself won the Tony for Best Play. Polanski’s film version boasts a cast of three Academy Award winners (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) and an Oscar nominee (John C. Reilly). Only an hour and fifteen minutes, the film largely takes place in an apartment with only four characters. As a result, the film is largely an extended sociopolitical debate focusing on moral, ethical, ideological and social concepts.
Set in Brooklyn, New York (although filmed in Europe due to Polanski’s fugitive status), the film centers around a schoolyard conflict in which a child assaults another child with a stick, removing two teeth after being called a “snitch.” The parents of the victimized child, the Longstreets (Foster, Reilly), organize a meeting with the offending child’s parents, the Cowans (Winslet, Waltz). Originally intended as a get-together to get a sense of the state of the mind the children were in during the confrontation and to facilitate a reconciliation, Penelope’s (Foster) insistence on making the matter an aspect of political debate in which liberal idealism in regard to a “sense of community,” “political correctness,” and the “upholding of Western values” pushes a formality into a tense meeting of the minds in which ideological beliefs are confronted, criticized and dismantled. The more intellectually-astute Alan (Waltz) and Penelope (Foster) clash as Alan promotes the “god of carnage” over Penelope’s liberal idealism while Penelope becomes impassioned by the idea of civility, responsibility and accountability in the spectrum of societal collective concern.
Meanwhile, the less intellectually-astute characters attempt to mitigate verbal damages only to become ensnared into the debate, which becomes intensely passionate as it goes along especially following the inclusion of a bottle of scotch. And while this meeting is comprised of two married couples, the verbal ire expressed is not limited to opposite parties as martial discord is displayed in both couples in their different approaches to the subject of schoolyard roughhousing. Carnage showcases the descent of a conversation between supposedly civilized and accomplished men and women of modern society into the kind of name-calling, foul language, bag throwing, and regurgitating that their children are supposedly guilty of. Carnage focuses on cynical realism over liberalism, political correctness, symbolic gestures and self-righteous grandstanding reactions to violations of a politically correct, faux social movement.
The cleverness of the Polanski & Reza’s screenplay is highlighted by the ensemble cast and their ability to keep the discourse flowing. The acting performances are all on point, including that of John C. Reilly who is often taken less seriously among his three co-stars. Jodie Foster is the most believable, passionate and convincing in her performance. Waltz’s portrayal of Alan, a believer in the “God of Carnage” poses the most compelling despite its aloof, uncaring and yet intelligent presentation of the opposition to Foster’s idealistic views. The verbal back-and-forth functions less as a way of keeping the film going, but as a way to tackle some intellectual debates relevant to modern society especially political correctness and liberal idealism bathed in guilt that has made communication more difficult, heated and partisan. While Polanski’s overall task as a director is much simpler here than on The Ghost Writer, his talents as a writer are put to greater use here than on any project Polanski has undertaken in years.