Directed by: Roman Polanski
Premise: Two couples (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) have a meeting after their sons fight on the school playground.
What Works: Carnage is a fun and witty film that uses a mundane situation to extrapolate ideas about violence, masculinity, and society. This film carefully breaks down notions of civilization and culture and it questions liberal humanist notions of progress and social responsibility. This isn’t Cannibal Holocaust but the filmmakers of Carnage go about their exploration of the nature and nurture explanations for violence with a lot of intelligence and manage to penetrate the subject in a meaningful way within the film’s brisk eighty minute running time. Carnage does this through its characters and the four people in the cast each represent specific political and ideological territory: Jodie Foster plays a liberal academic, John C. Reilly is cast as a blue collar father, Kate Winslet’s character is a privileged career woman, and Christoph Waltz plays the white collar conservative. Every one of these actors is at the top of his and her game in this film; no one performance stands out but the cumulative effect of each actor’s contribution makes the film work. Carnage effectively crisscrosses the interests, perspectives, and assumptions of each character and the evolution of the conflict is fascinating to watch. What starts as a civil mediation over a playground incident gradually escalates as each character’s politics begins to emerge. As that happens, Carnage complicates the relationships between the four adults. Allegiances between spouses are stressed and fractured and new allegiances emerge based on shared ideologies. The ensuing argument becomes a lengthy dialogue and dramatization about social justice, class privilege, bourgeois guilt, and the nature of society. That is all very heavy thematic material and academic audiences will certainly have a lot in the film to reflect on but the appeal of Carnage ought to be broader than that. This is a very funny and witty film and as smart as it is the picture is also accessible. Some of that humor comes out of how awful and childish the adults become over the course of the film but the picture manages to indulge immaturity without becoming obnoxious or silly.
What Doesn’t: Carnage was adapted from a play by Yasmina Reza and the picture never quite shakes the stagey qualities of its origins. Aside from the title sequences, the whole film is limited to an apartment and the hallway outside. The point is to use the limited geography to create a growing sense of claustrophobia and the film does that but it also feels just a little contrived, especially as the visiting couple is constantly redrawn into the apartment despite their efforts to leave. An area in which the film ought to have been altered from its source is in the ending. The climax is inconclusive and it the film does not reach a resolution; it just ends. It is a disappointing finale to what is otherwise a very good film.
DVD extras: Featurettes and trailers.
Bottom Line: Carnage is a very smart and subversive picture. Its flaws keep it from becoming a great movie but the film has a lot to say in a very short period of time and it is a great example of using drama as a philosophical exploration.
Episode: #387 (May 6, 2012)