Carnage is billed as a comedy of no manners, but it’s precisely in the characters’ initial excess of manners, and in seeing their subsequent descent into chaos, that lies the true comedy in this film, directed by Roman Polanski and based on the play “The God of Carnage” by French playwright Yasmina Reza.
Except for a short prologue and epilogue, the entirety of the film’s action takes place in Michael and Penelope Longstreet’s (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) Brooklyn apartment, with windows revealing a great view of Brooklyn, tasteful art decorating the walls, and shelves filled with books, making it clear that this flat belongs to an affluent family. They have invited Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) into their home, hoping to deal with the aftermath of a playground fight involving their two young boys, where Nancy and Alan’s son Zachary, armed with as stick (or as the Cowans would rather put it, “carrying” a stick), attacked Penelope and Michael’s son Ethan, causing some minor but permanent damage to his teeth. Unlike the two sets of parents, none of whom saw what actually happened, we witness the fight at the start of the film, albeit from a distant fixed shot, so details are scarce. But it is precisely in discussing the details, and in determining who’s to blame, that the drama and the comedy are unleashed.
Both couples are determined to resolve the matter in the most civilised of ways, the Cowans accept the Longstreets’ invitation to their home, bringing along some yellow tulips as a gift. The two couples are as distinct as they are similar: Michael Longstreet is a kitchen appliance salesman, a blue collar conservative whose no-nonsense ways are tamed by Penelope’s socially and politically conscious idealism. Alan Cowan is a ruthless corporate lawyer, unable to put away his mobile, much to the dismay of his wife Nancy, whose world appears to be as much under control as her immaculately coiffed hair, both of which get seriously bedraggled by the end of the film. Through the initial politeness between the two couples, increasingly cutting comments and snide remarks begin to take their toll, and it’s not long until the veneer finally cracks, the blame game goes into full gear, alcohol is brought out, and all semblance or propriety is abandoned, with well maintained appearances descending into childish behaviour (although I suspect that the whole point of the film is to show that adults are ultimately no better at dealing with social conflicts in a proper manner than their children).
With such a confined setting, and such a tight storyline, the true pleasure of this film lies in watching the pitch perfect performances by the four actors. Roman Polanski’s direction makes the most out of the limitations imposed by the film’s single setting, creating spaces through the way that the characters form and break alliances with one another. While Carnage will probably not make its mark as one of Polanski’s finest films (not a damning criticism, considering his remarkable body of work), it is nonetheless an enjoyable and entertaining display of four fine actors having a great time, making the most of a deliciously incisive script.