There is no question as to whether or not a widely successful and critically lauded play can be adapted to film. The points to be debated are: Will the translation from stage to screen illuminate any unperceived intricacies, and more generally, will the revised and stylized version matter? There’s certainly value in exposing new audiences to a brilliant piece of verbal jousting that they may have missed when it made the rounds on the international theater circuit. But is the source material in any way diminished when it isn’t performed live? If the impact is reduced, the whole production may be compromised. Fortunately, when veteran actors are drafted by one of the world’s most celebrated and vilified directors, there’s a good chance the results are going to be favorable.
Working from a script adapted by playwright Yasmine Reza, Roman Polanski’s Carnage settles down in a wealthy neighborhood in that liberal haven of Brooklyn (though it was filmed in Paris due to Polanski’s legal troubles in the States). Barring the opening and closing shots, the entirety of the film takes place in the African art-decked apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), who have invited the well-heeled Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Cristopher Waltz) to their home to discuss a mediation between their sons. Prior to their meeting, the Longstreet’s son is bashed in the face with a stick, and although they’re not suing, they want to have an urbane conversation about the incident and hopefully coax an apology out of the Cowans’ young felon. Although the couples are in agreement that the boys should resolve their problem peacefully, they differ in their opinions of the onus of responsibility and a child’s understanding of violent behavior, among many other things. As they delve into the issue — with the Cowans repeatedly trying to sneak away — the overprotective mother in Nancy comes out, sparking a barrage of arguments that boil down to debates on the nature of parenting, social propriety, and the fallacies of marriage.
In interviews, Polanski said he was eager to make a film in real time. At this point in his career, he may be more interested in the challenge of a novel approach than writing and directing an original screenplay. And while this may be disappointing to some, his experience is one of the reasons Carnage works as both a film and a play. The featured actors have been oft-recognized for their talent, but together they make an unusual foursome. Reilly is the only one with a notable comedic background, yet Waltz delivers a shrewd performance as the remorseless capitalist. At once detestable and captivating, he’s an ideal foil for Reilly, who plays a boorish fixture salesman that can hardly hold his own in the roomful of sophisticates. Similarly, Foster drives the action and maintains intensity as a seething helicopter mother while personifying an embittered intellectual who believes in a nonexistent rule-bound society. Winslet is the only one that fails to really impress, though her transition from reticent socialite to projectile-vomiting drunk is central to the wreckage. Compared to Foster’s histrionics and Waltz’s rapacious fury, she comes off as merely a disgruntled housewife.
If the acting is stellar, the script itself is equally so, as it moves fluidly between issues of cultural tourism as scholarship, white guilt, and the consequences of big pharm. The latter is neatly strung throughout the film, with Alan taking cell phone calls to run damage control and cover up the side effects of a new wonder drug. The cell phone itself plays a role as an unseen fifth character (the specter of capitalism, maybe), and it’s an effective device, allowing for tonal shifts and breaking up the disparate narrative threads. But beneath the many layers of commentary, there’s a constant undercurrent of pessimism and misanthropy. As we come to know these characters, we realize that they are both common and pitiful; if anything, it stresses the seeming universality of bourgeois pettiness.
Carnage may be an anomaly in Polanski’s body of work, but it’s far from a misstep. It’s another commendable effort that continues the tradition of significant theater works crossing over to cinema to shed light on the dark waters of high-class malice and avarice. Reza invokes the cynical spirit of Mamet, while Polanski channels the negative energy into a cohesive whole. Confined to the apartment, we’re stuck in their claustrophobic world for 80 minutes, with only a view of the New York skyline through the window and a prayer for escape down the elevator shaft. And in the Cowans’ failed attempts to leave, we get the sense that this is their purgatory, and perhaps where they all belong.