“I wish we could have met in a different way,” is a comment paraphrased from the film “Carnage”, a social commentary film based upon the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza. I haven’t seen it on stage, but Polanski does his best to bring the theatrical energy from the characters to the screen. And he achieves this through his cast of actors, who turn out some of their best performances in their careers to make this into an appealing film to watch. Also, Polanski uses a few props as symbols to promote some of the themes in the play itself.
The plot of the film is very simple: it begins with a bunch of kids at a playground who get into a fight. We do not hear what they are arguing about, we only see the scene devolve into a shoving match. At its climax, one of the kids takes a stick, and swings it right into the face of one of the other kids.
The next shot is at that kid’s parents’ house, and his parents are Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly respectively). They are in the middle of writing out a synopsis of what had happened to their child, while the perpetrator’s parents, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz respectively), look on and make minor suggestions as they see fit.
At first, the two couples are in complete agreement on how to handle the situation. The Longstreets feel that they are being polite and civil by inviting the Cowans over to their house, even though the Cowan’s son struck their son with a stick, requiring some dental work and some other wounds to heal.
The Cowans look to be apologetic, and gracious that the Longstreets are being such kind hosts, such as offering them cobbler and coffee. But as the couples continue to talk, what they truly feel underneath begins to surface, and things go the way of the playground from the first scene.
No one comes to physical blows; but the emotional blows they take at each other, all because of their defensiveness and insecurities about themselves, are completely exposed. And, of course, once Scotch is introduced, you know nothing good is going to come of it. But it’s not always just the one couple pitted against the other. Polanski’s blocking shows that sometimes it’s men versus women, sometimes it’s one against three, and sometimes it’s parent versus parent.
Two props are also skillfully used by the director, one that probably first belonged to the play, and that’s Alan’s cell phone that incessantly goes off and he incessantly answers it. In an act of defiance, one of the characters finally disposes of it in a vase full of tulips, provided by the Longstreets to give their living room an inviting presence for the Cowans’ visit. Another prop is the mirror, in which a few times, someone stands near it. Never once do they look at it.
The film only runs at about 80 minutes, and once you realize they are never going to leave the living room, and settle into the characters, you get used to it. Plus, the conflict starts popping quickly, and once the sparks start flying, it becomes a very entertaining film to watch.
As far as the message of the film, and I assume the play as well, this isn’t exactly uncharted territory with regards to the social commentary. We all know how it goes: the biggest monsters out there are ourselves. Using a title like “Carnage” may suggest this is a horror film, and in a way, it is. The characters eviscerate each other with words and try to needle each other, and hurt their feelings. But the way the actors are totally invested in their characters makes this work extremely well. We know these characters are going to hate each other, because sooner or later, they’re going to talk to each other, and tell each other how they really feel.
And honesty is more brutal than any physical object could be.