Taking what first appears to be a left turn from his usual comfort zone (dry comedy usually doesn’t come first to mind), Roman Polanski brings us CARNAGE. It’s a dark, droll work, one based on a play originally written in French, playing (in translated form) for hundreds of performances on Broadway.
I’m the first to decry most translations of play-to-film, they’re often far too claustrophobic for the tale they’re trying to tell, artificially limiting the range of location that cinema can provide in what’s often a clunky fashion. CARNAGE doesn’t hide its theatrical roots for a moment, yet the production design (impeccably executed by Dean Tavoularis) and scope of the narrative beautifully translate on to film, the claustrophic nature of both the location and narrative perfectly embodied by the single location (save for credits, both intro and exit, framed over a still shot of a Brooklyn park.
A film of this nature obviously depends almost solely on the performances of the central characters, and the film is a showcase for some pretty impressive talent. Most compellingly, there’s a vast array of emotions displayed throughout, a kind of topsy-turvy, back-and-forth between that’s almost dizzying.
Centered around a pair of parents, brought together to work out the details after one son was hit with a stick by another (an action shown in distance during the park-set wideshot that opens the film), we quickly find that the parents have many more issues than their children ever had.
This is Woody Allen’s New York brought to Brooklyn, a darker, still funny but in many other ways brutal and shocking unmasking of middle class boundaries. CARNAGE delightfully plays each individual off one another, the sides switching effortlessly so that at any given time different cliques are formed and unformed, often within a given topic of conversation. Laughter, tears, malice and even vomit plague the evening, and even the surreal, “we can never leave” vibe is addressed in increasingly amusing ways. Again, just enough set is designed to make the environs feel extremely real, including pretty fabulous 3D work outside the window, creating NYC in 3D on the Paris-shot set.
All the performers are great, but Foster in particular hasn’t been this good, this unhinged perhaps ever. John C. Reilly more than holds his own, Waltz is a beautiful, sinister calm, and Winslet’s frosty hairdo and almost frumpy business wear a perfect allusion to her emotional state. These are adults having many, many disagreements, something sure to either annoy or discomfort many, but there’s an underlying dark comedy throughout that keeps it engaging. More than even most Horror films, a genre that trades on such thrills with creepy set pieces and a spooky score, the film left me anxious, physically on edge from the confrontations displayed throughout. This reaction, of course, is exactly what the film is going for, exposing the banality of first-world-problem relationship, political correctness, social rudeness and the very fine line that separates adults from their adolescent, tribal selves.
CARNAGE may be a departure thematically, but it’s Polanski’s most effective, shiver-inducing film in years. The inadvertent horror of four adults coming to terms with their own neuroses is in many ways more effective at eliciting a reaction than some of his more dated, predictable genre pieces in the 60s. Certainly not for everyone, CARNAGE nonetheless feels like a very accomplished work, seemingly effortless yet with such compelling and driven performances that it’s clear the maestro still has a few tricks up his sleeve.