There is no love lost between me and Roman Polanski. I know that I’m in the minority on this, but I just don’t like his tastes as a filmmaker. Don’t get me wrong, he can cast his movies expertly, he’s a master with a camera, and the whole double jeopardy thing about his pedophilia history is pure bullshit. I’m not denying his superlative skills as a filmmaker, I just don’t like what he does with those skills. I considered The Ghost Writer and Chinatown to be very mean-spirited movies that delighted in punishing its well-intentioned protagonists, which goes entirely counter to my personal philosophy regarding tragedy in fiction.
So it was with some trepidation that I went to see Carnage, a movie directed and co-written by Polanski, adapted from a stage play called “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza (who gets a writing credit here). Though the reviews on this film were somewhat tepid, the cast was wonderful and the premise sounded great. Plus, the film is getting some awards buzz and new wide releases continue to suck, so let’s give it a look.
The start of the movie concerns two grade-school boys named Zachary Cowan and Ethan Longstreet. We never get a good look at them, nor do we hear what they argue about at the movie’s outset. But from a distance, we clearly see Zachary
missing hitting Ethan in the face with a stick. Shortly after, we learn that Ethan lost two incisors as a result of the blow. So it is that Ethan’s parents invite Zachary’s parents over so they can put this whole incident aside.
In one corner, we have the Longstreets. Penelope (Jodie Foster) works in a bookstore and occasionally writes her own non-fiction books about ongoing genocides in Africa. Her husband, Michael (John C. Reilly), sells houseware and has a mother going in for ankle surgery.
In the other corner, we have the Cowans. Nancy (Kate Winslet) is an investment banker who can’t hold her liquor. Her husband, Alan (Christoph Waltz) is an attorney totally lacking in cell phone manners.
So how do relations between these four people break down into screaming, rambling, drunken tirades? Let me count the ways.
First of all, aside from a few muffled phone voices, these are the only characters in the film. And the Longstreets’ apartment is the only set. From the opening credits to the ending credits, that’s it. Just four people stuck together in a cramped space. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that in such a situation, everyone either gets along politely or they go postal on each other.
The two sets of parents really do try to be courteous to each other at first, but the repeated offers for coffee and cobbler only force them to stay in the apartment together. This proximity does nothing but allow more time to squabble over petty misunderstandings and veiled insults, forcing their differences to rise to the surface. Even when these characters are trying to apologize and make peace, it only succeeds in prolonging the grudge match. And just like that, these characters aren’t locked together in hospitality, but in conflict. This leads to a chain reaction in which conflict brings out more of the characters’ shortcomings, which leads to insults and frustration from the other characters, which inevitably leads to the question of who’s going to throw the first punch and when.
The actors involved have all gotten a great degree of awards buzz. This is understandable on the one hand, because all four of these seasoned acting veterans go through pretty much every emotion in the spectrum over the course of this picture. It would be an understatement to say that they play their roles masterfully or that they carry the film with extraordinary finesse. On the other hand, this is a true ensemble picture. The actors in this film are only as strong as how they play off each other. Without the actors’ interplay or their skilled comedic timing, this movie would have nothing. Though the characters are constantly fighting each other, these actors all work together as a single entity with every line of dialogue. As such, to single out any one actor would be an insult to the movie and to the cast. Praise and trophies must be given equally to each or to none.
Of course, it must be said that the actors aren’t the only reason why this film works so well. A huge part of it has to do with the skillful editing and Polanski’s sure hand at directing, both of which keep the non-stop dialogue from slowing down. Kudos also to cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who does an outstanding job at getting coverage from every possible angle. He even utilizes reflective surfaces to cover two shots at once, which is still one of my all-time favorite camera tricks. Last but not least, the screenplay is phenomenal. Not only is the comedy razor-sharp, but the characters are all superbly written, and with a plethora of withering insults and comebacks between them.
With all of that said, I do have a couple of problems with this film; one of them is major and one of them is minor. The minor problem is that somewhere in this film, the conflict hit a ceiling. I’m not sure I could put my finger on where exactly, but there came a point later in the film when it occurred to me that these characters were just going around in circles. The conflict wasn’t resolving, but it didn’t seem to be getting much worse, either. They just kept screaming at each other despite the fact that nothing was coming of it, though I’ll admit that may have been part of the movie’s point. Then again, if conflict isn’t rising or falling, then it’s just stagnant, and that isn’t nearly as much fun to watch.
This brings me to my major problem with this film, and it’s essentially the same problem I had with the two other Polanski films I’ve seen: The last 30 seconds. Put bluntly, this is a movie that has no ending. It isn’t like the movie fades to black or even like it cuts to black. No, this felt like the curtain had suddenly fell without warning and crushed all the actors. That isn’t to say that the characters all die, because killing all the characters would at least have led to some kind of a resolution.
I’m not even exaggerating when I say that the characters are all screaming their heads off in one moment and totally silent the next. Roll credits. No climax, no resolution, nothing. It’s implied that these parents and/or their kids reached some kind of an agreement, but we’re left without any idea as to how that agreement came about. We see all the escalating conflict, but we never learn how the conflict ends. As such, the movie is essentially a set-up that denies payoff at the last minute. It’s this kind of unapologetic “fuck you” ending that makes me absolutely loathe Polanski as a filmmaker, in spite of his amazing talent. Sorry, but when a filmmaker shows such deliberate and flagrant disrespect to his audience, I feel perfectly justified in disrespecting him right back.
Yet despite my gripes with the film’s pacing and structure, and despite my ongoing hatred for how Polanski chooses to end his films, I still really enjoyed Carnage. The actors are all on top form, the visuals are beautifully crafted, and the screenplay has moments that are diabolically funny. This is definitely recommended, so long as you get ready to make up your own ending.