A version of this review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2011 New York Film Festival.
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 version of Buñuel’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 visiting 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 sensation 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 and again, the apartment begins to take on 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 be awkward, but the mood is playful, almost jubilant. Polanski’s own son plays one of the two boys involved in the inciting altercation, and I imagine the movie is full of observations drawn from the director’s own frustrating altercations with his children’s friends’ parents. The insipid conversations, the feigned curiosity, the strained attempts at compromise; they’re all here. Polanski’s getting his revenge, and he’s having a wicked good time of it.
The actors looks like they’re having a lot of fun as well. I expected greatness from Winslet, Foster, and Reilly and got it, but was very pleasantly surprised that Waltz, despite a wonky American accent, outshone them all in the meaty role of Alan, the power-brokering lawyer who can’t stay off his cell phone. 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.