When Carnage released in late 2011, it was met with a generally gracious reception, but never truly gained any traction for some of its finer performances, adaptation, and subtle direction. I myself offered a glowing review, and felt it was one of the more overlooked films to come along in a year of much mediocrity. Nothing has changed. “Carnage” is indeed a gem of a movie, and one that doesn’t require you to immediately appreciate its every fine quality to experience the compelling revelations it draws.
One New York apartment flat, four characters, one day. What was originally written to take place on a stage suddenly has to flow believably in the confines of a film. Based on the play, “God of Carnage,” the film has the daunting task to emulate the brilliance of a sophisticated production while not seeming to heavy-handed. The script was already proven, but the question was if director Roman Polanski could craft a film that would do the source material any justice. This begins and ends with the perfect balance between the two couples.
The Longstreets — Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), invite the Cowans — Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), over to their home to discuss a (semi) violent dispute in which their sons engaged. As they begin to come to an agreement as to what should be done to reconcile their sons’ disagreement, the two couples become caught up in something entirely different. Their individual personalities are the precursor to what follows. Penelope is the maternal, world peace advocate while her husband Michael is the easy-going supporting figure. Nancy, on the other hand, appears engineered with a youthfulness that causes her to be slightly self-absorbed, while Alan is equally self-absorbed, but in a witty, entertaining manner.
Every time the Cowans are about to leave the Longstreet’s residence, they are inexplicably drawn back to return, never escaping the outrageous exchange and series of events. At first, it’s just the courtesies. They are invited back to share in coffee and some cobbler. Penelope makes a mean cobbler. By the last time they try to leave, it’s like they are nailed down to the house, shackled to a never-ending un-bagging of their pent-up emotions. The brilliance of their conversations lie in the constant back and forth between metaphors and comments that lack any filter whatsoever. At one point, Penelope exclaims with a matter-of-factness, “And violence is our business.“
Not only does the play convert so well to screen, but even more impressive is the way the actors melt into their characters. Foster spearheads the foursome with a unsettling combo of courteous and controlling. Winslet is unpredictable, and surprisingly loose and enjoyable. Waltz is hilarious as the Blackberry-brandishing lawyer who prides himself on his detached role as husband and father. Reilly is the most approachable of the group, your common man, who in his simplicity, reveals a great deal of understanding towards the other characters. The combination of the four is hardly noticeable, because you never find yourself being aware of their perfect chemistry — it just happens.
With the DVD release of “Carnage,” a few new features bring more light to the process of the creation of the film. The Actors’ Notes documents the thoughts of the cast on the various dynamics and meaning of the project. They are thoughtful in their discussions, and it opens your eyes to elements you didn’t even realize existed. An Evening with John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz is an in-depth portrait of the actors’ involvement and experience, while the On the Red Carpet briefly documents the premier of the film. Nominated for two Golden Globes, the film was not entirely forgotten during the awards season, and it is a welcome opportunity to once again revisit the film on DVD.
“Carnage” is not so much about theatrics and drama as it is about the subtleties of language and the fascinating way individuals choose to interact. It brings us into the war room of domestic disagreement, and keeps us there for the breakdown of communication. Above all, it is a transfixing commentary on the dynamics of marriage, couples, and the irony of living.