When eleven-year-old Zachary Cowan, armed with a stick – I’m sorry, carrying a stick (armed is a bit of a strong word, don’t you think?) – strikes his classmate Ethan Longstreet’s face one day in Brooklyn Bridge Park, the boys’ parents meet up to discuss the situation responsibly, as adults do. Naturally, Zachary’s parents, Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan  (Christoph Waltz) have made the trip, albeit reluctantly, to the Longstreets’ Brooklyn residence – based on the logic that the victim, or in this case the victim’s parents, shouldn’t go out of their way. On the contrary, genial hosts, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) go all out for the Cowans, putting on a formidable show of middle class politeness, from the tulips (flown in from Holland, via Henry Street) and art books out to impress on the coffee table, to umpteen offerings of espresso, Cobbler and, as the conversation worsens, scotch. With drink and dessert growing heavier on the stomach, tempers – and gastric fluids – rise and what starts out as a mutually coerced picture of collective parental concern transgresses into a primitive brawl replete with far-reaching vomit and home truths, flying purses and anxieties.

On first glance, the Longstreet living room is pleasant and charming. But it appears here as stifling and cluttered, a room that festers in its own turmoil. Even the way the room is shot, from the many angles that become familiar living at home, becomes frustrating. Outside, there is the distant, grey New York City, a far off reminder that there is life beyond the windows, though that too is similarly grim. Nevertheless, the static theatricality of the Longstreet apartment nods to the play upon which the film is based. It is also the perfect stage for this wry comedy of errors. Throughout Carnage, we never leave the Longstreet apartment, only ever straying so far as the hallway in a series of attempted departures with the Cowans. But the living room is a magnetic minefield that propels them and us back each time; a raring jungle filled with books on Africa and the Expressionist art of Kokoschka and Bacon – all writer, Penelope’s taste – and primed for feral, carnal expression. Indeed, the Longstreets’ respectable, urbane living room comes to resemble a 21st Century war ground for the well-to-do as the Cowans and the Longstreets battle for their boys and then, for and between themselves as it becomes less about the kids and more about their marriages. The couples seem to react to the type they take the other to be, though, in the process, project onto them their own marital quandaries. The result is a social experiment far more entertaining than any reality TV show, that does not depart from reality in its cruel isolation of the couples but rather, brings them together to face their similar and dissimilar but crucially, equally tedious realities.

Like the mirror, through which the camera occasionally filters its unhappy objects of reflection – as the saying goes, a mirror never sees but only reflects – the couples find in each other a version of their own familial despair. As Tolstoy wrote, ‘every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ For the Cowans and Longstreets, meant to represent the modern married couple with kids, there is much truth in this. In pinpointing that truth, Carnage is incredibly clever; taking as its premise something at once simple and problematic, primal and current – one child hitting another with a stick – it is transmuted into something larger and yet local to us all. With the particulars of each couple’s marriage dissected before us, we grow as irritated as Nancy by Alan’s business calls; as nonchalant as Alan in response to Nancy’s crazy; as weary as Michael in going along with Penelope’s pretentions; as disheartened as Penelope by Michael’s mediocrity. Fundamentally, each of the four characters, deftly and convincingly conveyed by their actors, is inherently human and therefore readily relatable; palettes of our most extreme and commonplace selves. When we laugh and despair with the characters, it is with the parts of ourselves we share with them, that they reflect back to us. Like the mirror, they do not see. Frantic, funny and frighteningly close to real – and a stroke of genius from Roman Polanski – Carnage, in its confirmation of life’s cold flatness, is like a slice of refrigerated Cobbler followed up with a warm can of coke. Like the truth, it goes down the wrong way but it is always right.

One Response to “Carnage”
  1. cathka says:

    I enjoyed watching this film, but I enjoyed reading this review even more.

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