Nobody makes a trapped-in-a-house-slowly-going-insane movie quite like Roman Polanski. You’ve got “Repulsion,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Tenant,” “The Ghost Writer,” and now “Carnage,” the first out-and-out comedy of the bunch. The film, based on the Tony Award-winning play by Yasmina Reza, is sort of Polanski’s “The Exterminating Angel:” one Brooklyn couple comes to another Brooklyn couple’s apartment to resolve a squabble between their two children. Though the matter is seemingly cleared up minutes into the film, the couple can’t quite leave; every time they make a move for the door some other petty disagreement, or offer of cobbler, or inability to schedule a return visit with kids in tow pulls them back in. They’re trapped by good manners and bad conversation, and the camera and the audience is trapped right along with them. After the opening credits, set in a park overlooking the Manhattan skyline, the movie never leaves that apartment. “Carnage” is not a film for claustrophobes.
However, “Carnage” is a movie for film lovers looking for a cinematic experience that mimics the senstation of claustrophobia. As spacious and inviting as the home of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) looks on first glance, once Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) almost leave, then almost leave again, the apartment begins to take on almost sinisterly cramped dimensions. Watch how often Polanski frames shots to put the apartment’s front door in the background of the action. So close yet so far.
The atmosphere may build to suffocating levels, but the mood is satiric throughout. Polanski’s own son plays one of the two boys involved in the inciting altercation, and I imagine the movie is full of observations from the director’s own frustrating altercations with children’s parents. The insipid conversations, the feigned curiosity about other people’s families, the strained attempts at compromise; they’re all here, all heightened to farcical levels and all rendered brilliantly by the all-star cast. I expected greatness from Winslet, Foster, and Reilly and got it, but was very presently surprised that Waltz, wonky American accent and all, outshone them all in the meaty role of Alan, the power-brokering lawyer who can’t stay off his cell phone for five minutes. Alan is the first of our quartet to abandon the pretense of politeness and the funniest of the bunch, though Winslet does make her character’s digestive suffering surprisingly comic as well.
“Carnage” is not a groundbreaking film by any stretch of the imagination, and plenty of audiences will complain that it didn’t “open up” Reza’s play in any way. For Polanski, though, keeping the play stiflingly closed off was surely the point. For decades, this man has made horror films about the terror of feeling isolated and confined to an apartment. This time he’s made a hilarious movie about the one thing that’s worse: being isolated and confined to an apartment with other people.
“Carnage” made its U.S. premiere Friday at the New York Film Festival. It opens on December 16. If you see it, we want to know what you think. Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.