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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Carnage

Comparing Carnage to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? for more than the second of noting that both are based on plays with four somewhat trapped people in a home is lazy. God of Carnage is a very different piece of work and was so from the time of its birth on stage, in Paris and then London, and then Broadway. It is a comedy of manners, then lack of manners, while Virginia Woolf is a weighty drama of emotional pain and violence. It’s a comparison that’s unfair to a film that has its own set of problems… none of which are “not being WAOVW?”.

It’s hard to define the utter failure of Carnage as a film experience. I came to it, as many critics will, having see the show, trying to remain disconnected from the impression of the source material in order to allow something new to bloom. The truth is, when I am watching a movie and thinking about the source material, the movie is already failing me, because it’s not engaging me in and of itself.

Unfortunately, the failure of Carnage speaks first to its director, Roman Polanski, who got the project because of his relationship to the playwright, but was always – in my mind – a poor choice for adapting this material. Why? For all his skills behind the camera, the beauty of Polanski’s grays has always been that, in the end, the black behind those grays is the blackest pitch black your soul can stand. The Nazis are real… the devil is real… the conspiracy is real… etc. This material is about people’s illusions about themselves. Polanski’s success as a filmmaker has been putting more honest characters up against the illusions others wish to maintain.

In this material, even as the surface images of the characters are cracked, they quickly retreat to the next layer of self-image. Polanski treats much of the film like an interrogation.. like we are going to get down to the hard reality… but there is no hard reality in a close-up here.

The first sign of trouble is in the opening credits, as we see, from a distance, a beautiful shot of a park, a proscenium created by trees, in which the boys whose actions drive the piece – a four-person conversation – live out their actions… there is a verbal fracas at the end of which, one boys hits the other across the head with a tree branch or some such piece of wood.

With that, Polanski gets the shark in Jaws to work… which is to say, he has literalized something that was better off in the audience’s head. Now every time the discussion of what one boy did to the other comes up in the piece – which is often – we have an image in our mind’s of one boy hitting another in a very specific way with a very specific object. We, in fact, know more than the four characters in the piece. To what good end? None, as far as I can see.

Our lack of factual knowledge, in the play, makes it much easier to not be sure of either “side” of this disagreement between the couples about how to proceed. Is one parent exaggerating or misunderstanding the act of aggression… or the dental consequences to the boy who’s been hit? Talk is cheap. People posture. But when you see the stick hitting one boy square in the face, audience flexibility is limited. It’s the difference between someone slipping on a banana peel in a movie and in real life. In the former, it’s a laugh… in the latter, it’s a call to 9-1-1, lost time, and fear of a lawsuit.

Polanski uses a variation on this framing device with the park at the end of the film. And to that, I have no objection. It offers perspective at the end of this comic melodrama. It is commentary, not fact… not unlike the line, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.’ Now imagine if the same character had told Jake at the beginning of the movie, (SPOILER ALERT FOR THE 18 PEOPLE READING THIS WHO HAVEN’T SEEN CHINATOWN… AND A SUGGESTION… SEE CHINATOWN ALREADY!) “Yeah, Jake… that crazy woman had a baby with her father.” Wouldn’t that color your entire experience of the story? (END “SPOILER”)

Then, the movie really begins with one couple on their way out the door of the Brooklyn apartment of another. And again, a stumble. People who really want to leave, leave. And the content of the script gives us excuses for the one couple not leaving the other couple’s apartment… but no real motivation, at least until near the end of the piece. But we are so caught up in the question of “are they leaving and how will they be motivated to say this time?” that we’re not engaging the bigger issues in the piece.

Again, I feel like I get the reason for this choice by Polanski. But it’s a bad fit. The visiting couple (Kate Winslet & Christoph Waltz) are trying to escape… from the beginning… a situation foisted upon them that they really don’t want to address. Got it.

And that really gets to the crux of why this movie doesn’t work. It’s a series of events. Some are more interesting/more successful than others. But the reason this works so well as a stage play is that it builds and builds, a train rushing down a track, the brakes becoming weaker and weaker after repeated efforts to apply them. Every time you think they have built a peace, there is one of the foursome there to tear it down.

But Polanski shoots the film in – in order of most used – singles, two-shots, singles with out-of-focus people in behind, and finally – and not until late in the game – four-shots. By singling out the characters and isolating them, cutting between them instead of letting them breathe as a group, Polanski kills the rhythm of the piece. They are all stranded, each on their own island. And it’s not like Polanski is a novice or in any way unskilled. This has to be a choice. But for me, it makes no sense with this material.

Another major example is the use of a cell phone by one character, played by Christoph Waltz. When that phone rings, the movies stops dead. Repeatedly. Clearly, a choice of Polanski’s. And yes, we all get the point. There is one scene of this, maybe the 10th call or so, where it really works and the other characters speak more and more loudly, as though they are trying to do to him what he is doing to the conversation. But it’s a movie killer most of the time. On stage, when that character is on the phone, it is an annoyance in a room of four people, but they behave as people behave when this happens these days. And he – as performed by Jeff Daniels in NY – doesn’t get louder and louder, as though he was trying to dominated the cell conversation and the room at the same time. But Waltz’ character does. And we get the joke and character development of that right off… we don’t need to do it a dozen times.

And this brings us to the other major flaw in this film. Great cast… all in the wrong roles.

The two best-of-their-generation actors are the two actresses, Jodie Foster & Kate Winslet. Both know their way around a camera as well as any actor ever has. But part of what makes them work as movie stars is that we have a good sense of them after all these years. And instead of casting against type, we kind of get exactly what we already know about both of them.


Winslet offers a soft, beautiful facade that with eventually get raw and bawdy. And Foster will start calmly and in control, only to become a tight, lean intensity machine when pushed. I am not saying that I do not relish every new performance by either of these actresses. I do. They find surprises. And they find some here. But wouldn’t it be more fun to see Winslet get shrill and Foster get goofy sexy… wouldn’t that be a surprise? Isn’t that the point of this piece? (And indeed, unexpected from Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis on Broadway, who usually play “the other role.”)

The guys are a little different. Christoph Waltz, as the script calls for, plays one note from start to finish. He’s a prick. He’s really good at it. But what was so great about seeing Jeff Daniels do this character in stage is that you don’t get “prick” from Jeff Daniels from start to finish. He looks like a floppy dog with a controlling wife, so as those characters start to switch positions, as he asserts his control and she starts to let loose (after her body lets loose), it’s a great wave.

As for John C. Reilly, he’s fine. But when he finally is asked to bring menace, he’s still not very menacing. Again, on Broadway, James Gandolfini played it brilliantly, completely convincing as a gentle, regular guy… but when he opens the cage, there’s a truly scary guy in there. Reilly can get crude, but he never feels like an alpha in this pack. Not his thing.


I, personally, have no problem with a movie in a box… which is to say, a movie that is stuck in one room, unable to expand out from its roots as a theatrical piece. I might notice there being some commercial issues with it. But no problem with that phenomenon… so long as the performances keep you breathing in that room.

In William Friedkin’s film of Killer joe, which is adapted from a Tracy Letts play, Friedkin opens it up quite a bit, then in one long sequence in a trailer – which is where the entire show took place – he pulls back and actually creates a proscenium arch at one of the most intense moments. He wouldn’t really speak to this moment in our DP/30. Perhaps with 5 people in the conversation, he wasn’t focused on that specific a detail. Maybe he didn’t really hear me. He said that he was unconcerned with it feeling theatrical. But it’s such a clear choice that there must be something specific he had in mind there.

In any case, this piece is mostly in the one room, as the play was. But in breaking it up with single-single-single and raked shots and attention-getting focus choices, Polanski isolates the characters inside of this already limiting room. My problem is that the material works so well on stage because the space breathes. It’s a social piece, not a piece made up of individuals, driven by their secrets and secret agendas. (See: Virginia Woolf, again.)

Over and over, Polanski turns the metaphors literal.


Probably the most remembered part of the show is one character vomiting in the living room. Here’s It’s Kate Winslet. The shock of it on stage cannot be reproduced on film. Nothing you can do about that. On stage, you really don’t expect that kind of thing in a 4-person talker of a play. It’s like the chandelier in Phantom (which I’ve never seen in a theater, but heard endlessly about). On film, it’s more real and less shocking because of it.

However, the connection of that moment to the next moment – the Jodie Foster character caring much more about a book she loves than about the woman who is ill – is where the film shows its weakness. Because the obsessive focus of the Foster character, in the film, is not so funny. It, too, feels real. So you are immediately swept into this very narrow focus of drying a book… or Waltz’s character wanting to clean his pants… and what is a beautiful section of farce in the play becomes the edgy, uncomfortable unattractive reality of not-unusually selfish people.


I guess that the reviews out of Venice should have made it all clear. People thought this was a drama with some comic moments. On stage, it was a comedy, without reserve, though sometimes dry and pitch black.

The audience I saw it with… true, a bunch of industry types and critics… didn’t laugh much. I kept waiting. The film had its moments, but the audience dried up within minutes of the three or so biggest comic events in the piece. So when the next one would come, the laughs didn’t come as easy and the interest in laughing at less explosive scenes just wasn’t there.

I would be curious to see this with “real people.” I’d be curious to hear what the NYFF audience sounded like.

it reminded me a bit of Altman in the 80s… stuck adapting play after play… a great talent surrounded by great talent… but just not able to really bring these shows to life on camera on those budgets with some of those plays getting in the way of his voice…


13 Responses to “Review: Carnage”

  1. waterbucket says:

    The trailer didn’t look good and I don’t think I’m going to see it. I wonder if they ever taped a live performance of the play and if so, would they release it sometime in the future? That seems more interesting.

  2. Keil Shults says:


  3. It’s a shame about the casting issues. There is genuine interest/entertainment value to be mined from against-type casting. Random example, but does anyone remember the 2000 potboiler Under Suspicion? It’s basically set in a single interrogation room where a noble/principled cop (Morgan Freeman) interrogates a rich friend of his (Gene Hackman) who is suspected in the sex-murders of two young girls. It’s a pretty unremarkable movie, save for a nice speech where Hackman criticizes the hypocrisy of a society of men who condemn the sexual pursuit of younger women while secretly hitting on the youngest girl at the bar that they can get away with. But the whole time, I kept thinking how much more fun it would be if Hackman had played the cop and Freeman had played the scuzzy would-be sex criminal. It was a clear case where casting-to-type just made the movie boring.

  4. Keil Shults says:


    I feel the same way about Burt Young and Sly Stallone in Rocky.

  5. Keil Shults says:

    You’ve tried Wolfe and now Wolff.

    Can I please have a job?

  6. celluloidkid says:

    Can I just say how annoying it has been to have to sift through so many reviews proclaiming that this film doesn’t live up to the play? I understand the urge about needing to compare, but since the majority of potential audience members have never seen the play and will never see the play, it all becomes a moot point. Isn’t comparing the play to the film just as lazy as comparing it to WAOVW? That’s not completely directed at you David, since you mention some other things, I’m just referring to other reviews I’ve read. In any case,the trailer didn’t make it look like a comedy exactly, so I doubt most people going in will expect to be rolling on the floor. This film just seems like a pleasant enough movie to watch over Christmas holiday.

  7. Diane says:

    Why the so many comparison? The average movie goer will just go see the movie because of the actors in it. I agree most have not seen the play and will not be comparing the movie to the play. Let the real audience be the judge on the movie and not the critics review of the movie. Also when reviewing the moviie I don’t need to hear your thoughts of what you thought the director was thinking about while filming the movie. Just report about the movie.

  8. David Poland says:

    Diane… so many answers to this.

    I don’t expect the average moviegoing to go to the film just based on the cast. Some will. But this is specialized product.

    And apparently, you think it’s a good idea to tell me not to review the movie or to do it well, which includes understanding what the filmmaker did with his camera and performances.

    If you want to just read a “report” on the movie, go to its website and enjoy the publicity materials. Don’t read criticism. I didn’t trick you into reading this. It is clearly marked “review.”

  9. cadavra says:

    David, you’re comparing it to the film version of WOOLF. On stage, it was extremely funny (though very darkly so); Nichols and Lehman drained out all the comedy and turned it into a soap. The comparison is indeed far apter than you think, at least stage version to stage version.

  10. David Poland says:

    Those who are comparing it are comparing it to the Nichols version of Woolf.

    Maybe you’re right… no idea on that specific production…

  11. LexG says:

    I’ve heard some of Desplat’s score. Usually he’s good, but MAN is that a TERRIBLE score. What’s with Polanski that his movies always have some musette-style BAGUETTE music? The score from this sounds like it’s from a 1982 movie about the newspaper industry.

    It’s fucking AWFUL.

  12. Keil Shults says:

    I’m comparing it to Nichols’ Wolf.

  13. Jeremy Butler says:

    I’m a regular person and I thought it was hilarious. I hadn’t seen the play since I live in the woods and am an uncultured redneck, but this movie did it for me. Don’t be so critical even though you’re a critic =)

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