The cinematic adaptation of a stage play can offer a filmmaker many creative challenges. Either the film can largely ignore its theatrical origins (Casablanca  was based on a pretty unsuccessful production called Everybody comes to Ricks), or then can be preserved in the form of a chamber piece – see Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957). Roman Polanski’s latest effort Carnage (2011) – starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly – certainly takes the latter stance, based as it is on Yasmina Reza’s The God of Carnage.
Comprised of only four speaking roles, made up of two couples – Alan and Nancy Cowan (Waltz and Winslet) and Michael and Penelope Longstreet (Reilly and Foster) – the film never escapes its one location, a middle class apartment in New York City. There are hints of the outside world – telephone calls and text messages feature, and the film is bookended by two park scenes which are seen from a distance – but this is the kind of dramatic situation which benefits from a pressure-cooker environment.
The Longstreets and the Cowans are attempting to resolve a ‘situation’, after an argument between their sons ended with one of the boys belting the other one with a tree branch. The parents are amicably agreeing on a statement so that they don’t have to involve lawyers and can do ‘the right thing’, and it is this sense of middle-class rational and civility to which the Polanski turns his blowtorch.
The misanthropic Alan is already halfway there, breezily worshipping the God of Carnage whilst at the same time fielding calls about a medicine that might have potentially lethal side effects. Nancy, on the other hand, is the kind of perfect wife who is used to mitigating her husband’s antagonistic nature.
The Longstreets at first appear more conventional: Penelope is the highly-strung liberal who hides a seething resentment and a rather fascistic recipe for apple cobbler, whilst Michael – like Nancy – seems to be forever smoothing things over, trading on his ‘well met’ demeanour.
Each character is shown up to be far worse than they think they are, except perhaps for Waltz’s Alan, who, despite his Blackberry dependency, gets some of the best lines of the film. It is Alan’s misanthropy which is largely proved by the scenario’s disintegration, and it is adversely our own misanthropy that makes the spectacle so oddly liberating and enjoyable.
Polanski has made some extremely claustrophobic films in the past (think 1965’s Repulsion) and is a true master at turning limited resources against his characters and the audience. As unnervingly funny as this dissection is, it would take an iron-will to sit though Carnage and not to be silently praying that someone – anyone – would just get into the elevator and push the button.
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