There’s much to like in this coal black comedy from Roman Polanski. The dialogue, by Polanski and Yasmina Reza, based off of her play, is sharp and biting, in a long tradition of filmed plays about marital and family dysfunction. It’s like the family from A Long Day’s Journey Into Night got locked into a room with the couple from Who’s Afraid from Virginia Woolf. And locked into a room these people are. Carnage is told completely by four people, outside of a prelude that sets the story in motion.
See, the son of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) has been struck in the face with a stick by the son of Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) and the Cowans are at the Longstreets to resolve the matter. What begins as a civil discussion between adults breaks down into a hellish roundabout of accusations, anger and frustration. The Cowans can’t leave. They need to, they have other places to go, they reach the hallway of the apartment building multiple times but like the guests in The Exterminating Angel, they can’t leave and with each return into the Longstreet’s home another layer of civilization is torn away.
These are extremely unhappy people. Penelope is the passive aggressive, self-assured nurturing leader of the group, lording her advanced understanding over the others. Michael is a nearly cuckolded compulsive pleaser who switches allegiances when an opportunity to impress presents itself. Alan can barely contain his disinterest in anything that isn’t is work and Nancy is a tightly wound disaster aping the things she thinks a modern woman should be without getting any of the moves right. This is all funny, by the way, but there are moments of general meanness that reminded me of last year’s Blue Valentine and Mike Nichol’s much less successful Closer from 2004. The performances are first-rate as you’d expect from 3 Oscar winners (John C. Reilly is the low man, being merely an Oscar nominee), particularly from Waltz who has spent much of his time since his breakout role in Inglorious Basterds in a retread of that part, some loony villain. But here he makes what seems like a factory-made jerk and creates him fully and honestly, showing a man who can’t be bothered to hide his contempt anymore. In a movie where everyone is a little messed up, and the people around him reveal their ugly true selves, Alan was his ugly true self from the beginning. I’m not sure that makes him the best of the bunch, but it might. But there’s not denying this is a fairly rotten bunch.