REVIEW: “Carnage” (**1/2)

Posted by · 7:50 am · September 1st, 2011

Venice Film Festival

When the title of Yasmina Reza’s acclaimed 2006 play “God of Carnage” was given a haircut in its transition to the screen, it was hard to read what — if anything — the change implied about the film to come.

On the one hand, “Carnage” sounds pithier and more aggressive, removing the safety net of metaphor from a text already pretty unreserved in its examination of upper-class ugliness. On the other, shearing the title of any theological implications (though the play’s less-than-incendiary speech in which the titular phrase was coined survives intact) smacked of caution: would Polanski’s treatment blunt Reza’s scalpel, selecting some of the play’s less arguable social transgressions while leaving more troublesome ones on the stage? Or did Polanski simply like the one-word title better?

As it turns out, the mixed signals were a red herring either way: the newly godless “Carnage” stints neither on the bilious wit the play spewed on stage, nor the formality of its construction, which takes an hour to excavate raw animosity and dysfunction from yards of swaddled politesse. It is, in the final event, very much the play that critics and audiences swarmed around from its Paris debut in 2006, and such fans’ relative satisfaction or disappointment with it will hinge largely on their individual response to the wholly refreshed cast.

As with his well-acted but somewhat embalmed 1994 adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden,” the director hasn’t broken a sweat trying to Polanskify material that speaks very much to his sensibilities in the first place — it’s not hard to imagine the beleaguered auteur filtering his own exasperation at the hypocrisies of the bourgeois moral police, however obliquely, through that of Reza.

For those who aren’t approaching hat-in-hand, however, Polanski’s straight-ahead, self-effacingly stagy treatment has a tendency to magnify this grandly amusing play’s slight pettiness and narrowness of focus. Charting in real time (and efficiently-used real time at that, given the film’s tidy 79-minute length) the initially civil but gradually vindictive negotiations of four parents following a violent altercation between their pre-teen sons, “Carnage” is an unforgiving study of the faux-lefty principles and artfully masked materialism that prevail in privileged white society, but reveal themselves most crudely when misfortune strikes. (“My wife dressed me up as a liberal!” John C. Reilly’s overreaching store-owner yells at one point.)

It’s thematic fodder that has inspired innumerable writers from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Edward Albee to Jonathan Franzen to Alan Ball, but Reza’s quartet of protagonists are all so irremediably unpleasant that her own tenets aren’t quite tested. This is occasionally fish-in-a-barrel stuff, however deliciously written, and the source’s lack of social or cultural particularity — the play was originally written and set in Paris, while the film takes the Broadway transfer’s lead of relocating it to the Upper East Side — doesn’t give it much resonance beyond the universal fun factor of milquetoasts behaving badly. In light of his tetchy (to put it diplomatically) relationship with the country, one might have expected Polanski’s first wholly American-set film since 1974’s “Chinatown” to take U.S. social politics a little more acidly to task, but the film’s verbal battle could still play out word-for-word in any plushly furnished living room in the world.

Deeper considerations aside, however, said battle is a gripping one — and if the characters themselves aren’t the largest of gifts to good actors, the dialogue they’re handed comes with a card and a bow. This is one-liner central, and a skilled match of actor to line can make certain words sing: “I don’t have a sense of humor and I don’t want one” isn’t even the sharpest of the film’s confessions, but when delivered by an actor as familiarly dour as Jodie Foster, it can’t fail to tickle.

As the prissiest and least self-aware of the four — “You get so absurdly attached to things,” she sheepishly self-scolds, all the while blow-drying a soiled coffee-table book — Foster is given the play’s most garlanded role, and enjoys herself most when the character at last self-immolates. If her rustiness is apparent in the subtler spots, she still fares better than Kate Winslet, here making a valiant stab at high-comedy nervous collapse, but too self-contained an actress (and arguably cast 10 years too early) to really make it fly.

The men, perhaps surprisingly, fare better. John C. Reilly is leaning a little on the mannerisms of his role’s Broadway occupant James Gandolfini, but plays delicately against the rhythms of onscreen spouse Foster. It’s Christoph Waltz, however, who most creatively interprets and restyles Reza’s brittle writing, and consequently walks off with the film: elegantly wielding a slippery Euro-Yank accent and maintaining a chilly calm when the remaining characters are pushed into hysteria, his indifferent, work-wed father is the most waspish of the four, yet somehow the closest the script comes to a sympathetic character — if only because he seems to be the only one aware how awful they all are.

Waltz’s surgically timed pauses and inadvertently louche appropriation of others’ space are responsible for the biggest laughs in “Carnage,” perhaps because they seem more explicitly scaled for the medium than anything else in the film. Polanski probably made the right choice in refusing to open the play out for the screen — save for a pedestrian pair of external bookend shots that needlessly contextualize the scrap between the otherwise invisible children — but Pawel Edelman’s lensing aims to outdo the intimacy of the theater experience by getting unflatteringly, claustrophobically close to the actors. It’s a tactic that seems a little over-compensatory when the single most striking shot in the film — a tableaux where all four are caught momentarily distracted from each other — could be contained within the proscenium arch. Swift and savage and so sparing in generosity that it risks selling its smart world-view a little short, the ample pleasures of “Carnage” (title notwithstanding) are those of its source, but it might have found more of its own.

[Image: Sony Pictures Classics]

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43 responses so far

  • 1 9-01-2011 at 8:04 am

    Michael said...

    woah! I had to use about 10 different times while reading this review to figure out what you were saying LOL. Pretty impressive writing, and despite the somewhat lower star rating, it actually makes more excited to see the film. I kinda wish it was more of a bloody train wreck than a middling one that your review implies, but I think it still looks like a fun 80 min diversion.

  • 2 9-01-2011 at 8:20 am

    Keith said...

    Great review, Guy, as always. Plays are such tricky things to adapt. And it sounds like this play wasn’t a particular favorite of yours.

  • 3 9-01-2011 at 8:23 am

    Jack said...

    Slightly disappointing, but I’m pumped to hear that Waltz was the standout since his performance was the one I was most looking forward to. It’d be great if he could get another nomination just two years after his win that many dismissed as a potential one-hit wonder.

  • 4 9-01-2011 at 8:24 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    I always have open when reading Guy’s reviews. I learn new words and phrases with every review.

  • 5 9-01-2011 at 8:40 am

    red_wine said...

    What it seems to boil down to is familiarity with the play. Like if you watch the movie directly, you might be dazzled by the theatrics but if you’ve seen the play, you might think, “Well okay…”.

    Atleast that is what I gauge from your review, but I really hate (with a few exceptions) over-egged mannered performances.

  • 6 9-01-2011 at 8:43 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Oscar prospects, before anyone asks: Waltz and only Waltz, I suspect, and I’d still put him in the dark-horse category. The play’s too brittle and cruel to really catch fire with Academy types.

  • 7 9-01-2011 at 8:58 am

    may said...

    Good read. Glad that Christoph Waltz did well; the movies he has done post-Oscar were massively underwhelming and a waste of his talent.

    Looking forward to the review for A Dangerous Method and Tinker Tailor (which now has a surprisingly interactive website:

  • 8 9-01-2011 at 9:03 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    Looks like Venice is off to a poor start with three major misfires in Ides, Carnage and WE.

    NYFF should have gone with Tinker for opening night, regardless of what actors showed up.

  • 9 9-01-2011 at 9:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I wouldn’t call The Ides of March or Carnage “major misfires.” (Sorry, Madge.)

  • 10 9-01-2011 at 9:26 am

    Zack said...

    So do you have any idea if your view is the consensus? The Playlist is the only other review I’ve read, and they were similarly meh. I’m just curious because I always feel like a bad person if I enjoy a Polanski film.

  • 11 9-01-2011 at 9:32 am

    DylanS said...

    Ugh, this review reminded me of the problem I had with the two Mike Nichols 4 character play adaptations, those being “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”and “Closer”. The problem with both for me was that all of the characters and their actions seemed phony to me, because they were such horridly unlikeable people and I never bought that they would have remained in each others company for as long as they did, especially when the conversations turned grating and irritating.

    I was hoping that Polanski (who unlike the theater-bred Nichols) has his foot firmly in cinema, would be able to figure out how to make this particular kind of play work on screen beyond the individual performances, but alas, it appears as though the material just wasn’t suited for cinema. I haven’t seen any of the aforementioned films in their original play form, but I imagine it all works better there, as it can take on a more metaphorical sense. A lesson to all, this type of play should probably be kept in the theatre where it belongs.

  • 12 9-01-2011 at 9:45 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Outside of the four star review of “Drive” all of your two and half star rated reviews offer up your best writing. I should email you my poetry for critique.

  • 13 9-01-2011 at 9:46 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’m just curious because I always feel like a bad person if I enjoy a Polanski film.

    Thinking that Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, Tess or Knife in the Water are masterpieces does not make you a bad person. The man’s a genius, and it’d be both unwise and unfair to argue otherwise on any basis but his work.

    As for the consensus issue, there are quite a few reviews floating round (The Mubi Notebook blog always does a good, quick job of rounding up festival views), and while some are more enthusiastic, I haven’t encountered anyone turning cartwheels.

  • 14 9-01-2011 at 10:03 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    When I said major misfires I didn’t mean based on your reviews alone. There are numerous bad and mediocre reviews of all three films.

    I also said that taking expectations into consideration.

    I know Venice just began but it seems to be paling in comparison already to what you saw in Cannes with Drive, Miss Bala, MMMM, Take Shelter, Kevin etc…

  • 15 9-01-2011 at 10:18 am

    Max said...

    Excellent review, Guy. About what I expected. As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the play, the casting (with, perhaps, the exception of Waltz) never seemed quite right.

    I do, however, want to disagree with DylanS. The material is perfectly suited for cinema. It’s just disappointing that Polanski didn’t manage to do more with it.

  • 16 9-01-2011 at 10:25 am

    Dana Jones said...

    Guy, you are a fantastic writer. Good god, this is a meticulously written review.

    Glad to see some praise going towards Waltz. I’m surprised at the amount of criticism towards Winslet, which has come up in almost every review I’ve read, mainly because I was counting on her to deliver a powerhouse performance. Hmm between this film and Contagion, I wonder if she will even calculate into the Oscar race.

    p.s. You got a nice little shout out on ‘The Projector’!

  • 17 9-01-2011 at 10:27 am

    DylanS said...

    Max: What do you find cinematic about it, if I may ask? To me, it seems about as theatrical as you can get.

  • 18 9-01-2011 at 10:29 am

    John G said...

    Add Evelyn Waugh to that list of authors, who handles this topic better than anyone. Ever read A Handful of Dust?

  • 19 9-01-2011 at 11:00 am

    Dana Jones said...

    Other reviews are singling out Foster’s performance as Oscar-worthy. This could be an interesting turn of events.

  • 20 9-01-2011 at 11:12 am

    Max said...

    Dylan: I’d take issue with the assertion that “it just wasn’t suited for cinema.” I was—initially—quite optimistic about its potential. Polanski, in particular, seemed well suited to material dealing with bourgeois hypocrisy and man’s “nature.”

    I’d add, the play had several moments of kindness, compassion etc. The characters may not be pleasant but they’re—to my mind—sympathetic.

  • 21 9-01-2011 at 11:13 am

    Max said...

    Perhaps I should add that I quite enjoyed “Who’s Afraid” and “Closer.” I’d consider both– on the whole– successful adaptations.

  • 22 9-01-2011 at 11:43 am

    AnnaZed said...

    Guy, you are such a good writer; you should write for the New Yorker or something. (Seriously, do they know about you?) I don’t get the cries of “I need a dictionary” though; you are using perfectly accessible English words.

    I’m still psyched to see this Movie, in part because I didn’t get to see the play and also because I actually love plays made into film. Who was that upthread bagging on Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolfe? Piffle.

    Also, what about that poster? It looks awful. What are they thinking?

  • 23 9-01-2011 at 11:49 am

    Mike said...

    Does this mean no Oscar nomination for Kate Winslet? :(

  • 24 9-01-2011 at 11:50 am

    Jesse Crall said...

    Winslet looked off even in the trailer. She’s probably my favorite actress working right now, so to see her flail a bit is disconcerting.

    And to AnnaZed: Totally agree about the poster.

  • 25 9-01-2011 at 12:22 pm

    Shawn said...

    Regarding the bourgeois moral police:

    When it comes to sexually exploiting underage girls, I’ve known gangsters with more scruples than Polanski. Well, from stage and screen we’re all aware of criminals with bourgeois family values. Ha ha ha. The class consciousness here intrigues me though. What class interests does Polanski the criminal represent? I would think he would exemplify the transnational haute bourgeoisie, if not a kind of aristocracy. Should members of exploited classes regard Polanski the criminal as a hero?

  • 26 9-01-2011 at 12:32 pm

    JCS said...

    Just want to add to the chorus of praise for Guy’s review. Wunderbar!

    Ironically, this review has made me want to see the film even more than before; Guy’s Ides of March review, though more positive, has strangely dampened my enthusiasm for whatever reason.

  • 27 9-01-2011 at 12:56 pm

    DylanS said...

    Max & AnnaZed: I like a number of things about “Virginia Woolf” and “Closer”. I think Nichols is a fine film director and I like all of the performances in those films, though I like them individually. In particular, Richard Burton gives maybe his best performance in “Woolf”, and same for Clive Owen in “Closer”. I just don’t think the material works well as a whole entity in cinema, only the individual elements. Just one man’s opinion.

  • 28 9-01-2011 at 1:43 pm

    Edward L. said...

    As others have said, a wonderfully written review, Guy, as usual.

    Just one minor quibble: wouldn’t you call The Ghost Writer Polanski’s first American-set film since Chinatown?

    Looking forward to Carnage. And I agree: Polanski is a genius.

  • 29 9-01-2011 at 2:08 pm

    Fitz said...

    Winslet is a huge talent, but she seems so miscast for this film.

  • 30 9-01-2011 at 2:26 pm

    Louise said...

    Guy, love your review. I can’t quite work out your starring system, is it out of 4 or 5 stars?

  • 31 9-01-2011 at 2:43 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Edward L: You’re quite right — I should have said “wholly American-set”. Shall correct, thanks!

    Louise: We work on a 0-4 star system, so I still regard 2.5 stars as a pretty respectable showing.

    AnnaZed and others: This is the French poster, and they often favour quite cluttered designs. I imagine the US one, when it arrives, will look quite different. I agree with you that this one doesn’t cut it.

    Thanks, everyone, for the lovely comments! More to come.

  • 32 9-01-2011 at 3:51 pm

    Brett Buckalew said...


    Did you manage to see Waltz in “Water for Elephants”? The movie itself has its issues (i.e. R. Pattz is a stiff), but Waltz is phenomenal and very complex in it, playing a notably different villain figure than “Basterds”‘ Landa. Unlike Landa, the “Water” character is very vulnerable, a trait Waltz keeps daringly close to the surface. I think with a better release date and more studio support, “Water” could’ve landed Waltz in the Supporting Actor race. It looks like “Carnage” is now better primed to do that.

    Considering even I asked the “one-hit wonder” question about Waltz after seeing “Green Hornet,” and I was fully behind his ’09 Oscar win, “Elephants” proved bracingly that he’s quite the opposite: an actor so gifted he has a real shot at being one of those veterans nominated every few years so long as he finds the right material.

  • 33 9-01-2011 at 4:31 pm

    Jim T said...

    OK, I love Winslet so much but I can’t say that this wasn’t a good review :p

    And hey, I think you’ll like her more in Contagion. Smaller role, but so what?

  • 34 9-01-2011 at 6:16 pm

    Chris said...

    I’m not worried about Winslet this awards season, she might not be up for an Oscar. But mark my words she will win the Emmy, Golden Globe, and Screen Actor’s Guild for Mildred Pierce.

  • 35 9-01-2011 at 8:00 pm

    Pauly said...

    Pretty positive review from The Independent:

  • 36 9-01-2011 at 9:39 pm

    Ed said...

    Was disappointed with this negative review, abit harsh I guess but to each his own.

    I look forward to the cast and their acting.

    You cannot please everyone but I will still consider this film one of the major contenders for best picture.

  • 37 9-01-2011 at 9:46 pm

    kel said...

    having watched the trailer, I’ve already become bored with this film, unfortunately. I love love love Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster was great 20 years ago, Christoph Waltz is a relatively new, wonderful discovery who cannot seem to find a proper follow-up to his stunning breakthrough, and John C. Reilly, who was once our greatest “new” character actor, has really bored me lately with his choice of roles, from the comedies to Cyrus and Cedar Rapids. Let’s hope he does something good in We Need to Talk About Kevin…

  • 38 9-01-2011 at 9:46 pm

    j said...

    Oh I forgot this is a “comedy.” Maybe Queen Winslet can nab Golden Globe noms 8 & 9 next year – for this & Mildred Pierce.

  • 39 9-02-2011 at 4:33 am

    marco70go said...

    Interesting review, interesting article (as usual, with Guy), but I frankly disagree, and would have given “Carnage” a much higher rating.
    And truth to be said, so did most of the reviewers, so far.

  • 40 9-02-2011 at 6:44 am

    Rashad said...

    I don’t get the Waltz hate. He was great in Water For Elephants and pretty funny in Hornet.

  • 41 9-02-2011 at 7:07 am

    JJ1 said...

    Gotta agree with Rashad. I’ve yet to be disappointed.