Review: Carnage

Carnage - Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz

Roman Polanksi goes back to his apartment roots and lightens up a little bit in this star-studded observation of human nature.

Carnage (2011)

Carnage poster (Polanski)

Director: Roman Polanski

Writer(s): Yasmina RezaRoman Polanski

Runtime: 80 minutes

Starring: Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster

Distributor: Sony


Rating: Better Than Average Bear (?)

More info

Roman Polanski is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and experimental filmmakers of the twentieth century, with Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown alone being enough to forever secure him a place in film history. Whether connected or not, the years following his highly publicised sexual assault charges have seen his career take a series of patchy turns, with only the highly acclaimed The Pianist standing out in the last three decades. With Carnage, based on the play God of Carnage by French playwright Yasmina Reza, Polanksi is back in in top form.

Following a fight between two schoolboys, in which one severely injures the other with a stick, the parents of the two children meet to discuss the issue amicably. The parents of the boy wielding the stick, Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet), visit the home of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) and things initially go well. However, as the conversation progresses, irreconcilable differences begin to emerge between the couples, slowly turning on each other and their own spouses as an all-out argument ensues.

With the weighty themes of The Pianist and the mediocre The Ghost Writer dominating much of the last decade, it is great to see that Polanski still has a funny-bone. Indeed, not since 1967’s The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, Madam, but Your Teeth Are in My Neck has the Polish director attempted something this consciously humourous, albeit a very black comedy at that. This is not a comedy in the traditional sense, but the humour comes from a darker place, one in which we revel in the rapid decay of civilised niceties between four otherwise typical middle-upper-class folk. Alliances are formed, couples separate and come together again, there is male and female bonding over tulips, cobbler, whisky and cigars. It’s a microcosm of society, of course, showing how one single issue can cause otherwise “liberal” people to rapidly change sides, but also that civilisation itself is an illusion.


The voyeuristic interest in watching the scene disintegrate is enhanced by the performances, which are undoubtedly the focus of the piece. In Waltz, Winslet, Reilly and Foster, director Polanski has assembled some of the finest Academy Award nominees or winners of the last few decades, and it is a no-brainer that they all perform their roles admirably. Foster in particular, in an increasingly rare on-screen appearance, does not mind making herself both physically and emotionally unattractive, screeching her way through an angst-ridden feature. Reilly, on the other hand, is remarkable in just how unremarkable he is for the first half of the film, before making a dramatic turn on a dime and revealing his true form. As the uptight Waltz and Winslet gradually unwind and let it all go, quite literally in the case of Winslet and to the detriment of several coffee table books, the versatility of the actors is evident.

The claustrophobia of the setting, harking back to Polanski’s own “Apartment Trilogy”, enhances the social angst and commentary of the less-than-subtle class struggles in the film, but it also betrays the stage origins of the story. Alan’s addiction to his mobile phone, Penelope’s attachment to her art books and the composed Nancy losing it when the contents of her handbag are spilled are all indicative of this commentary. This is hardly groundbreaking stuff, and Reza’s script doesn’t necessarily alter any preconceived notions we might have about these characters. Much like the quartet in the film, our allegiances shift and reform throughout the film, but we ultimately end up not too far from where we started.

As a performance piece, Carnage is a terrific showcase for its four stars, even if it leans a little too close to the stagey side of things. A nice comedic return for Polanski.

Carnage is released in Australia on 1 March 2012 from Paramount.