Decent performances from fantastic actors isn’t enough to save Carnage, the latest film from director Roman Polanski. If your idea of time well spent is watching people argue, yell, and scream at each other for two hours, then you’ve hit the jackpot with this one.
Polanski’s sketchy history is enough to have some critics refuse to review his films altogether, and while I’m certainly not endorsing his actions, I don’t have a moral problem with watching one of the guy’s films. Taking his off-set behavior out of the equation and examining Carnage by itself, it didn’t seem like there was much to it from a directing standpoint. The story is based on a French stage play called God of Carnage, so naturally it’s going to be confined to a limited number of locations. This isn’t to say that there’s no room for stylistic flourishes in close quarters – if Michael Bay made this movie, it would look a lot different than Polanski’s – but because Polanski chose to film everything in a straightforward way, the movie felt a little flat. Everything’s just kind of…there.
The film opens on a shot of kids playing in a park in New York City, and after the credits roll, one kid hits another in the face with a stick. The movie then transitions to the home of the parents of the victim (Foster and Reilly). They’ve invited the parents of the attacker (Winslet and Waltz) over to talk it out and shed light on the situation. Things heat up when blame starts getting thrown around – turns out the attacker is in a gang, unbeknownst to his parents – and these apparently civil adults abandon their pretensions, plummeting off the deep end into name-calling and drunkenness.
Jodie Foster’s character was by far the most annoying, a haughty writer working on a book about Darfur. She whines and cries throughout, trying the patience even of her on-screen husband, John C. Reilly. He’s the best part of this movie, and the only thing that made it remotely tolerable for me; when he gets some alcohol in him, his inhibitions fall away and he starts telling it like it is, providing the funniest lines in the film by far. Waltz’s character is a lawyer who spends at least half of his screen time on his cell phone, locked in uninteresting conversations with one of his pharmaceutical clients about covering up a scandal. Kate Winslet’s character isn’t much better, a snooty holier-than-thou type who, in one of the film’s rare instances of something interesting happening, projectile vomits on a coffee table. I realize that’s not a character trait, but it’s the most important thing she does in the film, which tells you a bit about the dynamics of the conversations here.
Carnage is yet another statement on society seen through the eyes of a small group of people in one location. Over the past few years, I’ve drastically lost patience with these kinds of films; most of them are less like Sidney Lumet’s excellent 12 Angry Men and more like Frank Darabont’s dismal The Mist, which is to say that recent variations on this formula have tended to get overly heavy-handed. Because the characters in Carnage are educated and pseudo-intellectual, I think their devolution into chaos is more of a condemnation of humanity than the one depicted in The Mist – at least the characters in the latter film are depicted as idiots from the start.
Because this movie is such a grinding buildup of constant unpleasantness, I was yearning for its end far earlier than it arrived. But when the ending finally does happen, it’s so abrupt – seemingly in the middle of a random string of arguments, much like any other here – that it has absolutely no impact, other than providing the freedom for which I so desperately longed. Carnage will work for some people, but trudging through the annoying characters and grating dialogue just wasn’t worth the takeaway for me. Though it’s nowhere near as abysmal as Just Go With It or Burning Palms, Carnage is a film I’ll never watch again. Until next time…