“Morally you’re supposed to overcome your impulses, but there are times you don’t want to overcome them.” So says one of the characters in Roman Polanski’s newest film: Carnage. It’s a sentiment that only brings itself to light gradually throughout the film, until finally the characters are devoid of any moral sensibilities which is humorously amplified in this intensely claustrophobic film. The film is very condensed (both in running time and setting), since it takes place entirely in a cramped New York apartment and is told in real-time (meaning the film never jumps in time). The set-up is as follows: when two boys in grade school get into an altercation, the parents of the children get together to converse about the event in a civilized manner. Needless to say, nobody is acting civilized by the end of the film.
Carnage is a dark comedy for sure, seeing that all the laughs are at the expense of the characters’ discomfort and uncomfortable interplay, but the over-the-top performances (that are more akin to the stage than the screen) keep the film from veering into depressing territory. The film is funny because although the situation takes place in a state of heightened reality, it all comes from a place of truth. All parents have delusional perceptions of their children and it’s only natural for them to become irrational once somebody threatens those perceptions. The script doesn’t look down on these characters, it simply highlights the comedic absurdity of adults who believe they are above acting like children (which we’re all guilty of).
All four actors put in wonderful performances across the board as the two central couples: Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz). This film would be nothing without committed actors and thankfully all four are up to the task. John C. Reilly is terrific as Michael, a middle class door to door salesman who takes pride in his mediocrity and pessimism, and Jodie Foster’s Penelope is pitch-perfect as the passive-aggressive (later, just aggressive) wife that instigated the meeting. Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz (in another standout role since Inglorious Basterds) have a wonderful chemistry (or lackthereof) as an elitist couple that are really only there as a courtesy.
Making the most out of its tiny setting and small cast, Carnage is a wonderful little film that proves the power of writing and acting.