There's Roman Polanski the master filmmaker and there's Roman Polanski the self-indulgent manipulator. Carnage
features Polanski at his most self-indulgent and manipulative and, thusly, creating a film that feels completely lacking in authenticity and naturalism.
Based upon a stage play by Yasmina Reza, Carnage
feels like a theatrical production in the very worst sense of what it means to be a theatrical production. The film is stagey, histrionic and yet, mostly owing to its immensely talented cast, remains at least moderately watchable if only for the actual performances.
The action takes place in a high-rise Brooklyn apartment and features two married couples - The Longstreet's, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), and the Cowan's, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet). We learn relatively little about these couples beyond the reason for their gathering, that being an early playground altercation between their sons during which younger Cowan physically assaulted the younger Longstreet. Ideally, these two couples have gathered over dinner for what should be an evening of civilized and reasonable conflict resolution.
This is not what will occur.
Polanski has always had a bit of a fascination with the claustrophobic factor that can be contained within human dynamics and conflict resolution, and even an apartment is not a strange setting for Polanski having been featured in such films as Repulsion, The Pianist and Rosemary's Baby.
In those three films, however, the sense of entrapment was a vital component in the stories. In Carnage,
it feels like an unnecessary gimmick for two couples whose escalation seems designed solely to illustrate that inherent primal scream within each one of us. In this case, however, it feels manufactured and the actual entrapment of the characters within this high-rise seems motivated only by the need to fill the film's sparse 79-minute running time rather than the need to further the story that's unfolding.
The biggest problem with Carnage
is that while Polanski has cast the film with an award-winning cast, he has failed miserably in directing them to the point where they're all on the same page. Jodie Foster's Penelope Longstreet is a shrill and hypocritical mess, a well-meaning do-gooder whose emotional cracks are obvious and quickly revealed. Foster's performance is so high-strung that it's off-putting, and the repressed beast within seems destined to come to life. On the flip side, there's the smug glibness contained within the performances of John C. Reilly and Kate Winslet, both of whom at least seem to be on the same page for much of the film though, as well, both are mostly relegated to secondary players here.
The real star of the film, perhaps, is Christoph Waltz, whose performance is most admirable and complex here as the one person among the four who seems to least hide the fact that he's really not an upstanding human being. Waltz, far better than any of the others, seems to tap into the film's dark humor and even darker drama. He "gets it" and his performance is all the better for it. For Waltz's performance alone, Carnage
is worth a view.
One can't help but get the idea that Polanski has blown the opportunity to make a really fine film here, even if he would choose to ignore the obvious timeliness of a film that is, at least thematically, about the issue of bullying and, perhaps, that there's a bully inside most of us. The dialogue, however, is so painfully obvious and unimaginative and the film's storyline so poorly constructed that it's virtually impossible to become involved in the story or the film's characters.
Considered Oscar bait early in awards season, Carnage
has for the most part been relegated to the darker shadows of Oscar consideration with the possible exception of Waltz's winning and memorable performance. While some films can survive or even thrive with that sense of feeling "staged," Carnage
feels as if all involved would have been a lot better off had this production stayed true to its theatrical roots.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic