The main problem with Carnage is that it isn’t nearly as bitter and as biting as it thinks it is. It’s supposed to be a car wreck that you can’t help watching, even while it makes you uncomfortable. But it plays out more like the mildly interesting embarrassment of someone who just fell down some stairs.

Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly) and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Weitz) have come together in the home of the former to discuss their sons: the Longstreet son was hit in the face by the Cowan son.

All the action takes place in a New York apartment and the confined space is the perfect theatre for what becomes the rapid disintegration of a civilised discussion into full-blown verbal carnage. What starts off as a polite, if awkward, discussion about misbehaving children soon becomes an unadulterated battle of ideals between people who, up until now, have pretended to know better.

As the film progresses, their alliances shift to suit their own bloated opinions. The veneer of bourgeois politeness crumbles and burns and they devolve from concerned middle-class parents (and spouses) to base, selfish hypocrites, all in real time. You cannot and are not supposed to like or sympathise with these people: they’re all unlikeable, trapped in their own prejudices, unhappy and smug.

Carnage was adapted from Yasmina Reza’s Broadway play God of Carnage, a comedy of manners commenting on middle-class hypocrisy. It is easy to understand why the action would be funnier on stage rather than in film. On screen it seems stilted, unwilling to let the audience participate, incapable of involving them. You are an observer, nothing more. And the comedy, barbed and fast as it is, fails to ignite completely. On film, the premise becomes unavoidably artificial. It feels as if it were made for the pleasure of making it, rather than for the pleasure of letting people see it. The unapologetic cynicism of the film isn’t striking enough for it to have any real emotional impact either. Yes, people suck. So what?

Still, the actors seems to revel in the material they’ve been given, which allows them to reveal, scene by scene, how people who keep up polite facades suddenly become fickle and cruel when they drop their pretences. All four of the actors demonstate this beautifully. Roman Polanski is a skilled director, whose film is, despite its deficiencies, wonderfully crafted and controlled and, in the end, funny enough (Winslet’s vomit scene is laugh-out-loud hilarious).

Carnage is currently on circuit.




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