Adapting a play to film is typically a rewarding process for everyone involved, including the audience who watches the final product. Since plays are about what people say and film is about what people do, blending the two offers a nice visual panache to accompany the usual deep character development that the stage affords. Carnage makes the transition to film fluidly, without losing its roots in theater. Regrettably, while the cast and crew give it their all to present something entertaining, they’re hamstrung by source material that may prove unexciting and sometimes unbelievable to American audiences.
Two pre-teen boys get into a scuffle on the playground that leaves one of them bloodied after the other smashes him in the face with a large branch. The parents of the victim, Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), invite the other boy’s parents, Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz), over for a peaceful conversation to settle the matter. Both parties do their best to put up a polite facade, but as the day wears on, their true feelings and thoughts on the matter and each other begin to surface.
Carnage starts off on a bad foot because the premise is hard to accept — in the United States, anyway. It’s difficult to imagine American parents who are so high-minded as to invite the parents of their son’s attacker over for polite conversation, especially after the extent of the damage is revealed. The scenario becomes less realistic when one considers the parties involved: a wholesaler of bathroom supplies (Reilly) and politically liberal bookshop employee (Foster), who seem like average workaday people, versus a high-priced attorney (Waltz) and investment broker (Winslet), who are most likely in the 1%. Considering the current high stakes of class warfare in America and parents’ single-mindedness when it comes to protecting their progeny, this meeting seems fantastical at best.
Still, the reality that this agreeable arrangement between parties would never work seems to be an underlying theme to the greater message that people are different when stripped of their polite veneers. By and large, the film presents this truth in wonderful fashion. The dialogue is neutral and amiable to start and characters are stiff and respectful at the beginning. As the meeting continues and opinions on parenting slip out, the exchanges grow hotter and body language more aggressive. Credit is definitely due to the cast for all of their subtlety and natural choices. Nothing they do necessarily calls attention to their shifting tolerances, making much of their performances the next best thing to reality.
On the other hand, there’s very little revelation to be had in this film. Anyone who has a day job or was forced to work in groups in school understands that people are polite to each other even if they hate one another if only to achieve a common goal. It’s also understood that politeness has its limits. Furthermore, realizing who the characters are in Carnage, it’s easy to see where the fractures in the conversation will take place. For instance, a character is constantly interrupting by answering a cell phone. Another character is annoyingly high strung, while yet another character comes off cold and detached. Once again, the actors turned out wonderful performances to bring their characters to life, but the plot holds only a few surprises.
As an adaptation, Carnage has a wonderful “stage” feel to it. Director Roman Polanski’s intention was to pull the audience into the room with the characters and he succeeded completely, presenting the film in real time for a truly authentic experience. The actors also give stage-like performances, acting for the cheap seats — just not as big. They all exhibit a wonderful command of the space, filling it with big movements or highlighting the emptiness by staying still. The presentation here is top notch.
All things considered, Carnage is a great production of a lackluster story. The direction, cinematography and acting are all high caliber. The film just doesn’t offer anything new about the human condition, which is absolutely necessary for a film like this.