Carnage Plays It Tough, Sometimes Ugly
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- Updated Apr 29, 2013
DVD Release Date: March 20, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: December 16, 2011 (limited); January 13, 2012 (wider)
Rating: R (for language)
Run Time: 79 min.
Director: Roman Polanski
Actors: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Cristoph Waltz
Meet the Longstreets and the Cowans, two married couples with a shared problem. Their sons have had an altercation, and something must be done to rectify the wrongdoing.
But they’re having trouble assigning blame. Which child was in the wrong? Does one have a tendency toward violent behavior? Can they really know each child’s intent in the events that led up to the fight between the boys?
Roman Polanski’s Carnage, based on Yasmina Reza’s play The God of Carnage, asks what happens when the people trying to work through the situation come to blows themselves. It’s a pointed, sometimes brutal examination of human nature apart from God. Selfishness, defensiveness and fickle social mores all get skewered in this ugly picture of people giving in to their worst suspicions and impulses. Social niceties go down the drain and reveal hostility, suspicion and mistrust at the core of these characters’ hearts.
That may sound like an upsetting experience, but as played by Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Cristoph Waltz, the dialogue sparkles and the punches land, sometimes with crackling and comic effect. When the characters deserve the shots—and this petulant quartet is ripe for ridicule insofar as each one thinks he or she is superior to everyone else—there’s a pleasure in seeing the zingers delivered with such gusto.
Things start off politely enough on the surface in the Longstreets’ New York apartment, as the two couples work on a joint statement about the incident between their children. Penelope (Jody Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) Longstreet smile. They applaud their ability to get to a quick result with Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Al (Christoph Waltz) Cowan about the Longstreet son’s injury at the hands of the Cowans’ male offspring. They don’t want to “[get] caught up in some adversarial” relationship. Better to be among those who “still have a sense of community.”
But the second the Cowans stop taking all of the responsibility for the incident, Penelope goes into overdrive. Before, her son had suffered the loss of two teeth and some nerve damage. Now he becomes a “child with no face left.” Nancy tries to be understanding. Her son certainly realizes the gravity of the situation, she assures Penelope. But Al’s not playing along. “He doesn’t realize how serious it was,” Al explains, bluntly. “He’s 11 years old.”
Nancy tries to be the peacemaker, but her intentions dissolve when confronted with an act she considers cruel: Michael’s admission that he got rid of a child’s hamster by putting it out on the sidewalk. Later she becomes physically ill and vomits, sending Penelope over the edge when the mess covers a beloved and rare art catalog on the Longstreets’ coffee table.
The Cowans try to leave the Longstreets’ abode, but each time they venture out the door, something pulls them back into the apartment, where their conversation continues. Every time they try to move past their differences, new fissures open between the couples.
Al has few words of encouragement and little inclination to apologize for the behavior of his wife, his son or himself. He simply wants to leave the apartment. When events conspire to keep him in the Longstreets’ residence, he spends his time responding to his buzzing cellphone and trying to manage a crisis for a pharmaceutical manufacturer he represents.
By the time Michael breaks out the Scotch, the language turns rougher. Michael confirms his own self-diagnosis of being a “short tempered son of a b----.” Al says flat out that he doesn’t buy into that “caring parent crap.” Al has no love of outward morality. He acknowledges that “morally you’re supposed to overcome your impulses,” but he wonders, “what happens if you don’t want to overcome them?”
As the situation deteriorates, the husbands begin to berate their wives, saying they feel taken advantage of, forced to attend the peace-making session. “My wife had to drag me here today,” says Al of Nancy. “I let you recruit me” for the meeting, Michael tells Penelope. The wives react harshly. “I’m living with this totally negative person,” Penelope says of Michael. She ends up cussing him out and hitting him. Nancy has her revenge, too, by tossing Al’s smartphone into a vase of water and tulips.
Carnage is not a drama of compassion or healing. It exposes its protagonists for the shallow people they are and ends on a note of irony. The great risk is that, in enjoying seeing these self-righteous characters take a fall, we end up exhibiting the same trait we disdain in them: feeling like we’re better than they are.
The movie does tackle a serious issue: How are we to keep peace with each other? James tells us, “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:18) Sadly, the characters in Carnage are closer in their behavior to those James condemns: “Where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder.” (James 3:16)
Carnage is skillfully acted and directed, but viewers will have to decide whether seeing such negative behavior has rewards or lessons worth considering. If you do attend, be sure to closely watch the action behind the rolling end credits for a hint of reconciliation.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; several uses of the “f” word; “s-it”; “dam-it”; “c-ap”; “p-ssy a-s”; “son of a b-tch”; racial epithet; a character says Jane Fonda made him want to buy a Ku Klux Klan poster; gay slur.
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: All four characters drink Scotch; Michael offers Al a cigar, and Al tells Nancy he’ll smoke it if he wants to; Penelope says she doesn’t get drunk; Nancy says she wants to “get drunk off my a--, blind drunk.”
- Sex/Nudity: None; Penelope walks into her bathroom, where Alan is blow-drying his stained pants in his underwear, but nothing is seen.
- Violence/Crime: The incident that sets the story in motion—one boy striking another with a stick on a playground—is seen from a distance in the film’s opening moments; description of the wounded boy’s injuries, particularly an exposed tooth nerve and the loss of two teeth; Michael says he left his child’s hamster on the street; the men remember being part of “gangs” in their youth; vomiting and the spitting up of bile; Penelope calls the boy with the stick a threat to homeland security; Penelope hits Michael; a cellphone is thrown into a vase.
- Religion/Morals: Al says he believes in a God of carnage, and references violence in Africa as an example of humans’ capacity for violence; Al says moral human beings are supposed to overcome their impulses, but wonders what happens if people don’t want to overcome them. “Who wants to say a Hail Mary when you’re having sex?” he asks.
Marriage: Al says he has another son by a previous marriage; both couples reveal strains in their marriages, with the women joining forces to confront the men.
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