Carnage, the latest feature from controversial and talented director Roman Polanski, is only 80 minutes long -- an astonishingly short run time for fare not directed at children in this, the increasingly bloated modern film industry. The only reason I mention the film's length is because, well, first you can't believe it's going to be that short -- not with the four terrific actors who compose, in essence, the entire cast. And then, somewhere in the middle, you suddenly can't believe it's going to take this long for the closing credits to roll down the screen.
Carnage, of course, is not the first movie to open with such promise only to lose steam and crumble apart. But, given the talent on hand, it is one of the more surprising films I can think of which follows that unfortunate progression.
Adapted from a French play titled Le Dieu du Carnage -- God of Carnage, for the uncultured among us -- the premise is startlingly simple. Two married couples in Brooklyn, the Longstreets and the Cowans, are drawn together when the Cowans' son Zachary strikes the Longstreets' son Ethan with a stick in a playground showdown, leaving Ethan down a few teeth, but otherwise no worse for wear.
The film is bookended by grainy footage of the confrontation and reconciliation of the two boys. In between, it never leaves the Longstreets' apartment, where, through a series of calamities, the two couples wind up failing to resolve anything between their two sons and bickering endlessly, both inter- and intra-marriage. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, each of the four individuals is terrible in their own way; each, in their own way, is a silhouette of the type of person you can find at any chic cocktail party in a major American city without looking particularly hard, but will want to avoid like the plague should you find yourself at such an affair.
Alan Cowan, played by Cristoph Waltz, is an unscrupulous lawyer for a pharmaceutical company who is all too happy to allow his Blackberry to interrupt any conversation, no matter how serious. His wife Nancy, played by Kate Winslet, is a self-involved investment banker who also seems to work too hard and shows only a passing interest in raising her son. Penelope Longstreet, played by Jodie Foster, is an overbearing, liberal elitist ready to offer advice to anyone on any subject, regardless of if it's welcome or if she even knows anything about the topic. Her husband Michael, played by John C. Reilly, is a henpecked dolt who is not likable in any way, but is probably the most likable of the four.
Though the tension between the Cowans and the Longstreets is obvious from the start, there is a thin layer of civility that is gradually broken down, first when Nancy upchucks Penelope's cobbler onto the her prized art books and finally when Michael breaks out a bottle of expensive scotch and all four end up lubricated by it. It starts out as Cowans vs. Longstreets, as you might guess, but the script deftly turns the couples on each other, too, which, I suppose, is what makes this "high art" and not some Brooklyn-ized riff on The Bad News Bears.
All four actors are up to the task here. You go in with an idea of what you're going to get from Waltz, Winslet, Foster and Reilly -- these are four of the best performers going -- and they don't disappoint. What does keep Carnage from being truly outstanding, then, has to be the source material.
Yasmina Reza, who wrote the play in French, co-wrote the screenplay, so it's hard to argue that something was lost in translation. I suppose what she has provided is terrific satire -- the deep flaws of Millenials laid at the feet of their parents, who can't seem to let go of their own narcissism and get on with the job of childrearing as it should be done. But on a more visceral level, I just couldn't get attached to the characters because they're each so reprehensible at different moments throughout the course of the film.
If you're looking for a reason why the film lost momentum some 30 minutes in, maybe that's it. There are only four real characters here -- the boys, intentionally, are almost theoretical -- and by the time the movie is halfway over, each of them has been so wretched that there's no one left to root for, no allegiance to be attached. There's a claustrophobia to the Longstreets' apartment that feels more oppressive to the viewer than to the characters themselves. The actors aren't at fault for that, indeed they all performed well. There needed to be an emotional lifeline. Unfortunately, it never really materialized.