By Joan Ellis
Carnage is a comic drama perfectly suited to the Broadway stage where it won Tony awards in 2009 for Best Play, Best Actress, and Best Director. Director Roman Polanski hasn’t used a wider landscape to expand the play – unless you count a couple of trips to the elevator in the hall. The result is akin to two couples having it out in a boxing ring. It works far better as a play than a movie, but let it be said that no one who loves a good fight should skip this movie.
A playground dustup has ended with one grade school boy hitting another with a stick. Boy wielding the stick is a Cowan; boy now missing two teeth is a Longstreet. The Longstreets – Penny (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) have invited the Cowans – Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) to their apartment for what all hope will be a dignified discussion of the war between their sons, Ethan and Zachary.
Nearly immediately, director Polanski propels his audience into a state of high anxiety. The rights and wrongs of the playground expand to reflect the values of each family. Watching the two couples try to hold their tempers against all odds is agonizing. Watching them let loose is a release valve for them and for us. Carnage is a short movie, thank God, because any longer in the living room with these four would have been cruel and unusual punishment.
Asked “Whatever happened to your sense of humor?” Penny howls, “I don’t have a sense of humor and I don’t want one!” Credit screenwriter Yasmina Reza with endowing the characters with a consistency that allows us to laugh heartily at their predictability.
Christoph Waltz’s Alan spends most of the movie on his cell phone dealing with an impending business catastrophe that is far more important, of course, than the loss of Zachary’s teeth. Kate Winslet’s Nancy spends a lot of energy and control in trying to keep things on a civil level. John C. Reilly’s Michael is reasonable enough until provoked; and Jodie Foster’s Penny is the way I imagine I would be if a tiger were about to jump on me from a tree. Even when she isn’t talking, her brow is lined in tension, her very thin self so taut she seems about to break in half. Watch for the vase of white tulips.
Each of the four will at some point be inflamed beyond even his/her most unreasonable behavior. Each will have a major meltdown, and those are far more fun than the controlled tensions that erode the marriages. It’s one hour, nineteen minutes of claustrophobic anger and resentment, short as movies go, and still you will be glad when the credits roll. This is a one-note story with an excellent cast but I still wish Polanski had let us up for air, or at least for a short walk in that park.