When two eleven year old boys get into a confrontation in the local playground that results in one boy hitting the other in the mouth with a stick, Michael and Penelope Longstreet, the parents of the boy who was struck, invite Alan and Nancy Cowan to their Brooklyn apartment, the parents of the "bully", to deal with the incident in a civilized manner.
In the opening single-take—the only exterior shot in the film—children are playing in the distance. We can’t see their faces, but, like animals in a zoo, we recognise their species: we see their group movements, their clan allegiances solidifying, their stances becoming more territorial. One boy, ‘armed’ with a stick (a matter of lexical contention later) hits another one, echoing the opening of 2001, A Space Odyssey—the blow has been struck, the true base nature of mankind has emerged, and there’s no turning back. On the soundtrack Alexander Desplat’s brilliant score moves from the plucky strings of a New York society film into increasingly insistent kettle drums. Two tribes go to war.
The parents of the all but anonymous boys get together to discuss the incident reasonably, as upper middle-class parents do. Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) is the mother of the ‘victim’ (if the term even makes sense in the animal world), a superficially fair-minded liberal who works as a writer (marginally), spouts platitudes that seem less from the heart than a handbook, and knows the pain of sub-Saharan Africans because she’s spent months reading about them. Her husband is Michael (John C. Reilly), a door-to-door hardware salesman, specializing in flushing mechanisms, and is that particular kind of American lout where intellectual torpor is a badge of pride. Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christophe Waltz) Cowan are the parents of the stick-wielding attacker (or the ‘threat to homeland security,’ in Alan’s words). She’s an investment broker, and—busy and harried—can barely suppress her disinterest in the homey affectations of Penelope. Alan is a corporate lawyer working for Big Pharma, and with a potential class-action disaster looming—on top of the ferocious and pitiless low-grade sociopathy that is in his nature, and that all corporate lawyers need—his endurance of Penelope’s It-Takes-A-Village and Fair-Trade-organic-greens posturing is dangerously thin.
Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza (adapting from her own Tony Award-winning play) have relocated the action from Paris to Brooklyn, a judicious move as the facades and self-delusional hypocrisy seem endemically American (‘The spirit of the play seemed to me more American than French and Brooklyn would be a likely place for this kind of liberal family to live,’ Polanski says). Essentially a chamber piece, Carnage plays out in real time (in a breathless 79 minutes), the characters seemingly trapped in the home of the Longstreets, just like the bourgeoisie in Luis Bunuel’s in Exterminating Angel. Here they’re unable to leave not because the capricious dictates of surrealism but because of their own class flaws—their pugnaciousness, their self-righteousness, their conceit, and the treatment of child-rearing as a competitive sport. And as in Bunuel’s film the patina of civilization soon crumbles and man is revealed in his true barbarism, the gilt of culture becoming meaningless (in Bunuel’s film the guests smash musical instruments to build a fire to roast a sheep that has wandered in—it’s Bunuel, after all—in Carnage, the tropes are less overt: instead of wrecking the furnishings it’s etiquette and cordiality that are demolished).
Polanski is a master of hothouse angst and repressive horror, and from the stifling confinement comes disintegration of the psyche: things get brutal on a boat in Knife in the Water, things get weird in an isolated castle in Cul de Sac, and Catherine Deneuve gets psychotic in Repulsion. That’s not even counting the stew-pot of unpleasantness in the Dakota Apartments in Rosemary’s Baby, or Polanski’s own turn as a cross-dressing psychological abuse victim in The Tenant. Things are lighter here, of course, as Carnage is a comedy (albeit a comedy of horrors). It’s basically a fable, like Aesop’s, (or satire, as it’s called if it’s funny and mean) and in a way just as blatant. To wit: what the sons were accused of, the parents trump: bullying, teasing, pouting, name-calling, hitting, and tantrums (not to mention unregulated projectile vomiting); it’s not the children who are being childish. But Carnage, of course, is a whole lot more fun than Aesop. Tense, wrought with delicious unease, you first see the tripwires in Penelope: just when things seem to be getting conciliatory, she fires a burr. With her aggressive passivity she can’t let matters rest. A damaged tooth becomes, with the compulsive badgering of a nag, ‘disfigurement.’ What at first is a children’s playground squabble, sorted out reasonably by adults, suddenly, with just a word, is escalated into a battle. Nancy is bored enough to ignore the goad, but her husband Alan—despite their lofty disquisitions on ‘honor’ and ‘duty of community’—is too alpha, and needs to swat Penelope down. He can’t ignore a challenge.
Because the film is too clever to be just a object lesson on the vacuities of two middle-class couples, the cycle continues and allegiances shift—civility reasonably gained devolves into uneasy detente then into open warfare—exposing repressed class resentment, clan fealty, and the struggle for pack dominance. The parts coalesce into a whole, on the very essence of man. War is, after all, war: between tribes, between the sexes, and as they are trotted out and fought one by one, the parents are shown to be only as civilized as their blood-thirsty offspring. Carnage is nothing less than a sardonic examination of man’s true nature.
Are we, as a species, just an adaptive animal with instincts and hungers (the reptilian predation of Alan, the leonine self-satisfaction of Michael), or are we something more than that (the lofty cliches of Penelope)? Is the brain stem—eat it, fight it, or fuck it—stronger than the cerebral cortex, the home of all goodness and fine manners? Is it ‘might makes right,’ as Machievelli noted, or ‘love conquers all,’ as Virgil would have it? ‘Survival of the fittest,’ as in the musings of Herbert Spencer after reading Darwin, or ‘What the world needs now is love, sweet love,’ as in the 1960s idealism of Burt Bacharach?
The cast is excellent, in parts and in the whole: Winslet, her contempt thrillingly modulated; Foster, never the easiest comedian, at first brittle then gleefully unhinged; Reilly, proving—after a year that has also included Terri, Cedar Rapids, and We Need To Talk About Kevin—that’s he’s one of the most nuanced actors working today; and Waltz, a master of the comedy of words, interruptions, hesitations, and inflections, his mockery timed with cold surgical precision.
So who wins? Considering the harridan that Penelope has devolved into by the end of the film, with her paltry, doubtful plea, ‘We have to believe there’s some possibility for correction?’ easily triumphed by Alan’s boast of substituting the rule of law with ‘the God of Carnage…he has ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time,’ it’s no surprise, given it’s a satire. As Jodie Foster has said—the antithesis of her character—’Our ideas about morality are constructs and in fact we’re all very primitive. We’re all monstrous in some ways and if we took responsibility for that we’d probably be better off.”
Chilly stuff indeed. A hilarious and biting scale model masterpiece.