Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) sit down with Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) to discuss an altercation involving their young sons.
Iím usually no fan of the stage, but I think I would have preferred to see Yasmina Rezaís award-winning play God of Carnage in its stage incarnation. This film adaptation--directed by Roman Polanski from a script by Reza and Polanski--is a noble attempt to translate the material to the screen, but I canít help but feel (and this is pure speculation, of course) that what often adds heat and energy to cinematic storytelling detracts from and softens what would drive a stage production.
For roughly ninety percent of its runtime, Carnage is four people in a room. They talk, talk, and talk, at times pleasantly, at times combatively, at times nakedly, brutally honestly. The material is a bit thin, but not because itís brief (the movie runs a bit shy of eighty minutes); these four individuals reveal their true natures and make their various points early on, so much of what comes later is repetitive. And whatís said (both what the characters say and what the movie has to say) isnít particularly new or enlightened (and that includes the coda, which is meant to be ironic in its contrasting content but is really obvious in its inevitability); itís a little like a combination of a John Cheever short story and Whoís Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with self-absorbed people of a certain socioeconomic standing being cruel and revealing their prejudices, insecurities, and failings.
I donít know if Reza was directly influenced by Cheever in any way, but itís obvious she had Edward Albeeís signature work on the brain while writing the play. The similarities are numerous, but theyíre often superficial (the vomiting being an exception; that borders on theft); itís more a case of Albeeís play being to modern four-character drama what Tolkien is to modern epic fantasy, a sort of inescapable influence. And while the similarities to Cheever may be coincidental (and Cheever certainly wasnít the only practitioner of his specialty), theyíre also numerous. Despite their wealth, education, professional standing, and pretensions, the characters here are miserable, petty, and despicable. Their outward appearance is deceptive; theyíre no further removed from the primordial ooze than the rest of us.
Nothing new there. But a lot of the dialogue (and thereís a lot of dialogue) is smart. Yes, some of itís heavy-handed and/or too declaratory, but thatís almost impossible to avoid in this type of endeavor (although Reza and Polanski still overdo it), but thereís a wit to more than a little of it. Thereís also a black, biting humor to some it; not as much as Iíd have preferred or the movie needs, perhaps, but itís still there. And the actors wring from all they can. This is definitely actorsí material, the sort of thing that allows every member of a cast to run the gamut, and these four actors make the absolute most of it.
Getting back to what I mentioned earlier, I get the feeling the castís efforts would have reaped even greater rewards in a stage production. Much of the action is confined to a single room, and Polanski does what he can to ensure the movie never becomes a photographed play, but in this case that has something of a negative effect on the material. I think this really needs to be seen in a form that allows you to see all four of the characters at the same time, one that allows you to pick where you want to train your eye. There were times here when I was annoyed by the use of a close-up or a two-shot; I wanted to see everyone, see how the others were reacting to whomever Polanski had chosen to highlight.
Additionally, thereís something of a disruption of the natural rhythm off all that dialogue. The movieís edited in a way that keeps it zipping along (and one that keeps the action unfolding in real time), but thereís something off about the rhythm. The edits may be quick, but thereís still lag time to them, pauses that are brief but are pauses nonetheless. These people should be packed tightly together, talking over one another in a rapid-fire manner that works like a collaboration between Howard Hawks and Robert Altman; there should be nothing to disrupt or impede the flow. Polanskiís handling of the material is as unobtrusive as possible (except at the very end, where the sudden switch to handheld cameras draws to much attention to itself), but this is a case where the very nature of cinematic storytelling proves to be obtrusive.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer provides a solid representation of the movieís intended look. Polanski and cinematographer Pawel Edelman chose a scheme that brings a naturalistic look to the movie; the primary location looks like a naturally lit apartment, slightly dark to begin with and getting progressively darker as the story moves along. The transfer canít completely resolve deep blacks or areas bathed in dark shadows, but itís not a huge problem.
Audio is presented in the form of a Dolby Digital 5.0 track (in English and French varieties). Thereís no dedicated LFE channel, but thereís still some appropriate bass action, adding needed weight to the score and strengthening dialogue. The vast majority of the sound mix is dialogue, so thereís not much in the way of surround action (just a couple of effects), but the mix still has a good illusion of space, convincingly replicating the acoustics of an enclosed setting. Better still, all of that dialogue sounds very, very good. English, English SDH, and French subtitles are available.
Actorsí Notes (10 minutes) is a series of talking-head segments with the four leads, who discuss various aspects of the production.
An Evening with John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz (38 minutes) is a lengthy Q&A session with the actors.
On the Red Carpet (3 minutes) is a series of interview clips recorded at the movieís Hollywood premiere.
Closing things out is the movieís theatrical trailer.
Thanks to the excellent cast, I didnít mind listening to what the movie had to say. I just wish what was being said wasnít so familiar.