Carnage Goes For The Jugular … And The Funny Bone
Adapting theater to cinema is never an easy task.
With theater, there’s a degree of intimacy that film lacks. When the actors hit the stage, they don’t get to have multiple takes of a scene. When a scene is over, it’s really done. If they flub a line or trip over a prop, there is no re-shoot option. And the audience gets to experience the story simultaneously with the actors.
Film allows for a different type of intimacy – one that is often difficult for theater to provide. By placing cameras where theaters would have its audience, movies give their actors a free pass to act more naturally. They’re able to utilize their bodies more, trusting that the camera will pick up every little character tick or subtle facial expression. Their actions don’t need to be big enough to make sure someone in the last row of an amphitheater can see what they’re doing.
That’s why the transition from stage to screen is not a simple one. The source material needs to be modified to accommodate a medium that has very different strengths and requirements.
Based on Yasmina Reza‘s Tony Award-winning play God Of Carnage, director Roman Polanski’s new film Carnage is the latest Hollywood adaptation of a story that made its debut behind a Broadway curtain. And it’s the first one that I’ve seen that’s managed to integrate the fundamental qualities that make these two forms of art so individually captivating.
With an all-star cast that boasts three Academy Award-winners and one nominee, Carnage tells the story of two couples who meet to discuss a schoolyard spat between their sons. Set entirely in a Brooklyn apartment (although filmed in Paris due to Polanski’s … “issues”), the movie traces as the couples begin to argue and progressively unleash their inner beasts, resulting in a riot-filled and wildly entertaining dark comedy.
When the film opens, we are invited into the home of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (fantastic turns by both John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster). There, they are writing up a summary of their allegations against the child of Alan and Nancy Cowan (played unsurprisingly without flaw by Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet). Allegedly, Zachary Cowan struck Ethan Longstreet in the face with a stick, temporarily “disfiguring him,” as Penelope likes to point out.
Each character is a completely exaggerated version of the “real life” counterpart they’re meant to represent, establishing the grounds for the ensuing absurdity in this masterful farce.
Penelope is the frigid, politically correct control-freak who you can tell forces her kids to stay at the dinner table until they’ve finished their brussel sprouts. Michael is the epitome of “Joe The Plumber.” He’s a decent, simple-minded man with a blue collar job, conservative views and his wife’s leash around his neck. Alan, on the other hand, is the businessman who can’t part ways with his Blackberry or designer suit. And Nancy is the passive one who’d rather smile and stay calm in the face of conflict than let it disrupt her daily routine.
Predictably, when four strangers with such diverging personalities come together to attempt to solve a problem, the tensions are immediately palpable. And as these tensions inch closer and closer to the surface, the characters begin to unravel and revert to their primal instincts.
To help convey this devolution, Polanski uses the metaphor of the fighting children to represent the chaos that occurs in the film. Upon first hearing the story of Zachary hitting Ethan, most people’s gut reaction is to assume that Zachary is the villain. Yet what prompted Zachary to behave this way? To what extent was he bullied that he felt it necessary to retaliate so brutally?
While the film does not provide a definitive answer to this (although we do learn that Ethan wouldn’t let Zachary be part of his “gang”), it certainly raises questions about what constitutes justified self-defense. To what limits can we be pushed until we start to fight back and protect ourselves? Our families? And to what degree can we expect those we love to side with us?
If you assume that the allegiances formed in Carnage put the Longstreets and Cowans in opposite ends of the rink, you’d be gravely mistaken. While the movie starts out that way, the bonds that hold the teams together begin to crumble until the brawl becomes an “every man for himself” power struggle. But not before there’s a dividing line drawn between the men and women when Penelope cheers on as Nancy drops Alan’s constantly ringing cell phone into a water-filled flower vase.
“Why don’t you ever stick up for me?” Nancy complains to Alan as she pours herself yet another glass of liquor – despite having previously projectile-vomited all over the Longstreets’ living room, the result of a combination of unsettled nerves and bad apple cobbler. A few drinks in and suddenly Nancy really feels completely exposed and abandoned.
When Penelope accuses Nancy of this transformation being a result of how “fake” she is, Nancy has no buttons left to push. “I am glad our son kicked the shit out of your son and I wipe my ass with your human rights!” she drunkenly shouts back at her condescending attacker.
Aside from its impeccable dark humor, what makes Carnage such a treat is that it really is the perfect marriage of Broadway and Hollywood. By having the screenplay remain faithful to the stage version and setting the whole film in one apartment, that level of intimacy you feel watching stories unfold in the theater is almost replicated for the movie-going audience.
Additionally, the film is shot in real time. Meaning that each of the film’s 79 minutes is accounted for as a minute of the conversation had between the four individuals, a rare tactic used in film-making. This also means no blackouts or fancy editing to guide the transition between scenes. And to maintain that feeling of intimacy, Polanski had the actors rehearse for two weeks prior to shooting. Another theater-standard not often adhered to in the film world.
“Some directors don’t like rehearsal,” Winslet explained in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal about the movie. “I don’t ordinarily like pre-planning things or blocking things. But sometimes things can really be revealed to you as an actor about your character that come out of an idea or a question that another actor has, and that’s fun. I would happily rehearse for three days and never stand up out of a chair, just to be in a room with everybody.”
Carnage is a film that delves into the psyches of four distinctly different people when placed in a situation that causes them to remove the masks that guide them through their daily lives. It’s a movie that shows that if provoked enough, the social etiquette we’re expected to follow as adults becomes irrelevant and we’re all capable of being savages.
As a result, the crimes committed among the four lead players are not only on par with the actions of their children, but on par with those of any animal attempting to survive in the wild. It’s just that in this case, the wild is Brooklyn and the animals we need to defeat are our fellow human beings.
Carnage opens in theaters on December 16th.