Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz
Plot: Two pairs of parents meet to discuss an incident involving their sons, but as the conversation becomes protracted, so the tension escalates.
One of the many challenges of parenting is dealing decisively with your offspring if they have a spat with a fellow pupil. This may involve a quick phone call to a teacher or, for more serious at-school incidents, a face-to-face meeting with the headteacher. But what happens if said incident happens outside school hours? Quite often it comes down to a friendly chat with the parents of the other child, where the intention is to have a civil conversation about the issue and nip any potential future conflict in the bud – but is it always as easy as it sounds?
Two 11-year-old boys, Zachary Cowan (Elvis Polanski) and Ethan Longstreet (Eliot Berger) have a confrontation in a Brooklyn park which results in Zachary hitting Ethan in the face with a stick, breaking one of his teeth. Their parents meet for what is supposed to be a cordial discussion about the circumstances surrounding their son’s set-to, but it turns into a chaotic slanging match which raises questions about who knows better about parenting than the other. Penelope (Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) Longstreet play host to Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet) Cowan so that they can sort out the situation. They begin formulating a letter to the school explaining what happened but when it comes to laying the blame, a whole can of worms is opened. Penelope is keen to point the finger squarely at Zachary, suggesting a brutal and unprovoked attack on her son – Nancy has other ideas and makes some suggestions as to how the letter should be edited to hint that Ethan must have said or done something to spark a reaction.
Initially intended to be a short meeting, Alan and Nancy find themselves holding the door handle (and indeed at one point are halfway into the lift) on a number of occasions, but are invited back in by Penelope and Michael to smooth over the friction that appears between them. The foursome’s careers provoke the first shots across the bows. Nancy, a wealth manager and Alan, a legal advisor currently dealing with a pharmaceutical company which is selling dodgy pills, are at odds with Penelope’s academic interest in Africa and Michael, who as a plumbing salesman has been forced into smartening up by his wife. Alan’s insistence on taking work calls before the conversation can get going, begins to seriously grate with Penelope especially, who takes offence when Alan jumps up to attend to his ill-fated Blackberry that ends up going for a paddle in a vase alongside a bunch of tulips. As the adults’ behaviour becomes increasingly childish, the chances of finding a resolution becomes ever more remote.
Carnage has a vast array of subplots – and that’s even before we get to the screenplay. Roman Polanski’s fugitive status in the US forces him to make alternative arrangements when setting a film such as this, which is meant to be in New York but instead has been mostly created on a sound stage in Paris. The original play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza (who takes a screenwriting credit alongside Polanski), is chock full of humour designed to display the descent into bewildering behaviour from the adults, but after a fraught half an hour or so, it dissipates all too early. The tension in the claustrophobic setting of an apartment is palpable, as the two couples discuss a range of subjects from Africa, careers and politics but all the while in the middle of the room, is an inescapable vortex which represents the question of whose son is to blame. After much toing and froing and building up the tension up to borderline unbearable, Kate Winslet’s character Nancy projectile vomits across the coffee table – from this point on the strain is also released and never quite manages to reach the levels as before.
There’s no shortage of acting calibre on show here though. Leading actresses Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet are pitted alongside perennial supporting actors John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz. Foster’s Penelope is the main protagonist to start with and you can get a real sense of the pride in her son being torn to shreds by these invaders in her home and their belittling of her principles. Winslet puts on her pseudo-American accent she used to much effect in Titanic, and it hasn’t changed one bit. She does however bring a snobbiness to her character Nancy, that grates to the right degree with her ‘lesser’ hosts. John C. Reilly provides most of the comic relief as Michael – his blasé attitude to placing the family pet hamster on the sidewalk because it makes too much noise in the middle of the night is one of the film’s highlights. It is Christoph Waltz who takes most of the plaudits however, for his portrayal of prickly Alan, who manages to rub Penelope and Michael up the wrong way with his telephone conversations and the fact that he is responsible for potentially finishing off Michael’s mother who is taking the pre-op pills in question.
The acting in Carnage is no doubt sublime, but the script does not buzz with the same vitriol and humour that the stage version intended. The switching of allegiances based on couples, genders and principles is well done, but for this to truly work, there needed to be a very fine line between spitting venom and spouting witty one-liners.