The reputation of Roman Polanski's classic work leads you to expect nothing but the very best from him. Even with the occasional stumble, such as Pirates or The Ninth Gate, you still enter into any new film he makes with high expectations, and even in his recent work he has delivered. But whereas The Pianist and The Ghost Writer were examples of masterful cinematic craft, Carnage is a disappointingly stagey effort, which fails to flesh out the ideas of its source material or satisfy us as a black comedy.
There seems to be a conscious attempt by Polanski to position Carnage as a descendant of his acclaimed Apartment Trilogy, comprising Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant. Fans of his work who were not familiar with the play probably saw the film on the basis of his track record in generating unbearable tension within seemingly harmless domestic settings. And like his Apartment Trilogy, Polanski makes an on-screen appearance, peering around the door of the neighbouring apartment as the row between the characters begins to escalate.
But while there is a continuity of setting, the films lacks Polanski's motif of using architecture to express malevolence. He is a master at manipulating light, colour and composition to make something as plain and simple as a wall appear to be harbouring great threat towards the characters. When married to a story involving unreliable narration or mental instability, this aspect places increased doubt in the viewer's mind, deeply unnerving us as tension builds. In this case, we are given a pretty standard-looking, upmarket Brooklyn apartment, in which the characters sit and say their lines without much going on around them.
Carnage does attempt to explore a number of interesting ideas, of which some have contemporary significance and others have become staples of comedy or drama depicting middle-class life. It is, to coin a phrase, a "behind the picket fence" movie, insofar as it depicts characters and their living space as having a veneer of civility masking widespread corruption and immorality. This is a very familiar theme, which puts the film loosely in the company of Blue Velvet, The Stepford Wives and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (more on that later).
Where Carnage differs, certainly from the first two comparisons, is its relative lack of stylisation. Both David Lynch and Bryan Forbes went to some length to orchestrate and elevate the unease caused by their over-perfect, chocolate box suburbia, using music and the visuals to pull you into a dark and horrifying world. Polanski, for once, wishes to play the material with understatement, relying on the characters alone to create malevolence. And for the most part this decision works as much in its favour as anything else; we get to experience the characters' frustrations without feeling like our response is being shaped a certain way.
Within this basic, well-worn theme, the film raises various other questions or points for discussion. It explores the cause and effect behind acts of great evil, raising questions about whether responsibility lies with individuals or whether acts like war and genocide are the product of a society which influences and determines our behaviour. The film questions what constitutes making a difference, with Jodie Foster's character being mocked for wanting to write a book about Darfur; she believes she is making a difference, while her husband and guests say she just wants to feel good about herself.
The title of the original play, God of Carnage, is uttered by Christoph Waltz as an explanation for such catastrophic events. Both he and John C. Reilly's character share some kind of nihilistic outlook, believing that there is nothing that can be done to prevent such carnage wrecking the Earth. The group are divided into the Nearderthals (who, to quote The Dark Knight, "just want to watch the world burn") and the bleeding heart liberals who believe in making a difference. Neither group is shown to have any credibility: Waltz cannot cope when his phone is destroyed, and Foster and Kate Winslet both resort to heavy drinking
Both the play and the film have a very mean-spirited, ironic view of mankind. They posit the idea that when we try to behave and solve our problems like adults, we are only kidding ourselves and things very quickly break down into childish bickering. Rather, the best way is to live red in tooth and claw, to allow our animal urges to take control - and, wouldn't you know it, living in such short-termist, selfish and impulsive ways might actually work. While the four adults gradually collapse until they are nothing but shells, their children sort out their differences with no intervention whatsoever - a cruel joke whose irony is not lost on us.
For all the ideas that it explores, however, Carnage ends up being hamstrung by three major problems. The first is that is doesn't really feel like a film: it feels like a recording of the play, or perhaps an extended TV episode. The production values may be good, but in an age where HBO are producing dramas as slick as anything Hollywood can offer, that's no longer enough. Despite Jasmina Reza having a hand in the screenplay, it doesn't feel like it has been properly adapted; the camerawork is uninventive and the editing is all long, slow tracking shots, which mimic our heads turning as we watch people move about on stage.
The second problem with the film, and perhaps the play, is that all the characters are deeply, deeply annoying. They score over the characters in The Squid and the Whale, or any Noah Baumbach film, because at least in this case there is something going on. But if we don't pick up on or understand all of the philosophical undercurrents, it becomes nothing more than four over-privileged New Yorkers moaning for 80 minutes. Although it always feels like there is some kind of end to this means, their complaints are so banal or removed from reality that we often lack the patience or desire to spend more time with them.
The third and final problem with Carnage is its pomposity. It comes across as a film which is attempting to be edgy, outré, radical or controversial, and in advertising these characteristics so broadly and willingly it ends up being none of these things. Even if the underlying idea makes sense (whether or not you accept it), none of the other discussions feel adequately resolved. Desiring ambiguity is one thing; throwing in random chunks of philosophy in a bid to sound clever is something else.
These flaws become all the more clear when you compare the film to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Like Carnage, it is based around two couples coming together in a domestic setting and playing mind games, leading to examinations of class differences, sexism, madness, politics and professional rivalry. Neither Edward Albee's play nor Mike Nichols' film were trying to be seen as edgy or ground-breaking - they just were. Carnage is trying too hard to be seen as edgy without doing the hard work needed to make us feel on edge.
The saving grace of Carnage is the performers, who really give their all. The film is final proof, if ever it were needed, that John C. Reilly is at his best in dramatic roles, as demonstrated by his brilliant performance in We Need To Talk About Kevin. Christoph Waltz continues his knack of being the best thing in sub-par productions, following on from recent turns in The Green Hornet and The Three Musketeers. And Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet both manage to keep us interested, with the latter deserving extra points for vomiting so convincingly.
Carnage is a disappointingly stagey and pompous production from a man whose body of work is normally anything but these qualities. It's not a total failure, on account of the four strong performances and its conscious effort to raise ideas or issues, rather than settling for middle-class moaning in and of itself. But it has neither the development nor the bite nor the shock value of Virginia Woolf?, playing on your patience when it should be messing with your head.