Though every human being goes through puberty, just how many of us truly grow up emotionally and become full-fledged adults? Not too many, according to playwright Yasmina Reza, and after seeing 'Carnage,' the adaptation of her Tony Award-winning play, 'God of Carnage,' I'm inclined to agree with her. Petulant, whiny, selfish, defensive, vindictive, rude, oblivious, and cruel, the two couples who comprise this biting comedy-drama verbally - and, occasionally, physically - spar for 79 fascinating minutes, shedding civility and restraint in favor of wallowing in the luxury of self-absorption and bad behavior. Airing their dirty laundry provides catharsis and a heady sense of liberation, but the effects, like a mood-enhancing narcotic, will only be temporary. After the dust has settled and fallout cleared, it's a sure bet these uptight paragons of upper-middle-class arrogance will button up their viewpoints, hold their tongues, and crawl back into their shells of proper decorum.
A playground scuffle between each couple's son incites the interaction, as Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) visit the Brooklyn apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) to discuss the incident, make amends, and develop a plan of action. The meeting begins with appropriate mea culpas and empty expressions of understanding, both of which belie the simmering tensions lurking beneath the surface. According to the Longstreet's son, the Cowan boy struck him across the face with a stick, knocking out one of his teeth and putting another in jeopardy. Both couples tread lightly and politely through the awkward minefield, though a few judgmental comments regarding parenting and values do slip out.
In an effort to maintain propriety, Penelope asks the Cowans to stay for a bite to eat, and it's here that the congenial summit devolves into a free-for-all. Alcohol fuels the fire, ramping up tempers and emotions. Soon the parents begin to act like children, tossing around blame, flinging accusations, and allowing buried traits to rise to the surface. As the hour progresses and the couples regress, baiting and snarling at each other like caged, rabid animals, united fronts are shattered and alliances shift, as topics such as marriage, child-rearing, and gender alter interpersonal dynamics.
As Shakespeare so astutely once wrote, "the play's the thing," and director Roman Polanski honors that viewpoint, maintaining the intimate, claustrophobic structure of the original work and thrusting his audience into the burgeoning melee. We're so in the characters' faces, their all-too-relatable revelations, confessions, and observations make us as uncomfortable as the quartet on screen. The sanctimonious attitudes, devastating jibes, and blistering retorts have more bite - and the arch comedy brandishes a more searing edge - because of our close proximity to the action.
Yet by allowing the drama to run its course and giving the actors free rein, 'Carnage' doesn't feel like much more than a filmed stage play. Polanski doesn't take any stylistic risks or use his camera as anything but a recorder, and despite some decent editing to facilitate movement and shifts in perspective, the presentation is too static, which keeps the movie from twisting the knife that much more. The words still have sting, but the visuals lack that zing that would really heighten impact. Polanski is a great director, but I feel he is too passive here. As I watched 'Carnage,' I often thought how great it would be to see it in a live venue, where its power and resonance probably would be enhanced, and that bugged me.
The ultimate success of 'Carnage,' however, hinges on the actors, and they all come through with flying colors, firing on all cylinders and sinking their celebrated teeth into their characters. Three Oscar winners and one nominee comprise the cast, and they work like a seasoned ensemble. We may not always believe their respective couplings, but then again, how many times in real life do we encounter husbands and wives who seem a bit out of sync? Here, that hint of a mismatch only adds to the situation's tension and juices up fiery confrontations.
Foster leads the charge as the high-and-mighty Penelope, whose rigid perception of human rights and morality rankle her guests...and her husband. From the get-go, Foster's tone and body language suggest her conciliatory air is merely a weak front for an uppity parent who can't resist flaunting her self-perceived superiority, and when she's ripped off her high horse and loses control of her surroundings, the transformation is striking. Reilly makes an excellent foil as her blustery husband, a nice, regular guy who just wants to let kids be kids and move on. When he opens up the scotch, you know things will get messy, and you know he knows they'll get messy, and he revels in the brutal honesty that's a byproduct of liquor.
Winslet also shines as the cordial, mild-mannered Nancy, whose initial embarrassment and regret over her son's actions morph into a rabid defense of his honor and a diatribe against the Longstreet's hypocrisy and her own husband's detachment. Her vomiting early in the film signals the start of emotional and spiritual purging, and foreshadows how the repressed inner feelings of all the characters will soon spill out everywhere. Waltz, too, strikes just the right notes as her aloof, self-absorbed, business-obsessed husband, who enrages Nancy and the Longstreets by taking a constant stream of cell phone calls while they struggle to sort out their sons' skirmish, a tiff that as time goes on becomes ever more trivial.
'Carnage' transpires in real time and ends up a brief, savage slice-of-life tale that deftly mixes comedy and drama. At times, it goes over the top, but that's part of the point, as it exaggerates our core reactions to a number of mundane, relatable yet thorny issues that cause polarized reactions. From an artistic standpoint, the film is a minor blip on Roman Polanski's résumé, but as an exercise in performance, it stands out as one of the better-acted films of 2011.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Carnage' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The BD-50 dual-layer disc features a video codec of 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 audio track. After inserting the disc in the player, a Blu-ray promo and previews for 'A Separation,' 'A Dangerous Method,' 'The Skin I Live In, 'In Darkness,' and 'Footnote' pop up before the disc's full-motion menu with music.
Save for the opening and closing credits, 'Carnage' was shot entirely on an interior set where light and shadow could be meticulously manipulated, and the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer beautifully reflects Polanski's vision. Contrast and clarity are first-rate, but there's a chilly harshness to the image that mirrors the characters' frayed nerves and the initial underlying (and later over-boiling) tension that permeates the situation. Lines are crisp, and close-ups display facial creases and popping veins with precision, while a lack of grain brings an immediacy to the drama that draws us in and makes us feel a part of the conflict.
Colors are rather muted, save for the bright yellow tulips that adorn the coffee table and Winslet's red lipstick, both of which provide some nice punch to the picture. Fleshtones are spot-on and remain consistent throughout, and solid black levels lend necessary weight to the visuals. Background elements are also easily discernible, lending the claustrophobic setting some welcome depth, and no digital anomalies, such as crush, banding, noise, or pixilation disrupt the smooth presentation.
For a film that's often shot like a stage play, the window between the audience and the actors needs to be as transparent as possible, and this excellent transfer from Sony gets us as close to the dramatic conflict as possible.
'Carnage' comes equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 track that supplies good quality sound for a film without much complex audio activity. Dialogue, of course, drives this drama, and it appropriately takes center stage, coming across with clarity and balance, so no words or exchanges are muffled or missed. Delicate accents, like footsteps and bits of extraneous business, are also cleanly rendered, and the intermittent music score by Alexandre Desplat enjoys good fidelity and a nice fullness of tone that fills the room well.
Surround activity is practically nonexistent, and the lack of any bass frequency is understandable, given the talky, interior nature of the piece. The dynamic scale is broad enough to handle both muttered remarks and shrill confrontations, and no distortion ever creeps into the mix. Overall, this is perfectly satisfactory, unobtrusive audio that serves the film well.
A few extras add a bit of context to the film and allow us to get inside the actors' heads.
'Carnage' neatly tells a messy tale as it analyzes how we interact, how we mold ourselves to fit someone's skewed vision of civilized society, and how seemingly insignificant events and minutia can trigger massive reactions and lead us to our breaking point. Director Roman Polanski respects the play's roots and keeps it confined to a single set, allowing the words and performances to speak for themselves. If you're looking for cinematic artistry, look elsewhere, but if you seek a thought-provoking, carefully constructed, brilliantly acted tale that's both entertaining and relatable, then 'Carnage' will satisfy that craving. Sony's Blu-ray features excellent video and audio and a few supplements, and earns a solid recommendation.