When movie characters have many opportunities to leave but stay in a place, we quickly understand -and not without excitement- that the movie will have only one setting.
On that aspect, "Carnage" tries to resemble "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" through a plot consisting in a conflict between two couples. I say 'try' because it's also a rare example of a marvelous potential totally wasted, coming so close to be a comedic gem of originality. I couldn't believe Roman Polanski didn't go farther with the concept he had on his hands. How he let the film end in such an abrupt and, let's face it, anticlimactic way, is a total mystery.
"Carnage" starts with a civilized discussion between two couple of parents, their kids had a fight, the little Cowan broke little Longstreet's two teeth. The Cowans (Nancy and Alan) are played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz, and the Longstreets (Michael and Penelope) by John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster. To determine which actor out-shined the other is a futile exercise: they were all great, and the script knows how to give to each one a moment to shine. The discussion is full of social hypocrisy, the Cowans don't deny their son's responsibility but the insistence of Penelope on little Cowan's guilt foreshadows a tension between the couple and the pivotal moment happens in the most unlikely way, through a big outburst of vomit. As soon as Nancy pukes, the movie takes us to one exhilarating ride into human relationships.
The underlined theory behind "Carnage" is that we all have two facets when it comes to our adult behavior, the image we'd like to reflect to society and whatever cements our inner personality. Interestingly, "Carnage" shows the gap between these parts of ourselves we prefer to keep intimate and the image we display as a couple, and that's the key of the film's narrative. In the beginning, it's about two couples, and then it desegregates into four protagonists, each one guided by his or her own issues. The performances are crucial because the point is to allow each viewer to identify with one character while the actions of the others remain justifiable. Indeed, no one is right or wrong, but each one is blinded by a subjectivity that underlines any attempt of a rational judgment. And the funniest thing is that they all try to be objective when it's totally impossible.
Take Penelope for instance, she is an idealist humanitarian that extrapolates the problem of her child to the eternal conflict between the weak and the strong, she embodies the feminist aspect that translates almost everything in terms of conflict, it's all about dominant this and oppressed that. She proudly reminds everyone that she defended the Darfour cause, neglecting that the core of most conflicts in the world is profit and greed, regardless of genders and colors of skins. Ironically, her idealism doesn't prevent her from superficiality when she makes a fuss about a catalog messed up by Nancy's vomit. On the other hand, Michael assumes his superficiality and enjoys life with more detachment. He takes that his boy was in a band with a sort of childish pride that betrays a naive and somewhat good nature, but clearly opposed to his wife's philosophy of life.
The Cowans are more sophisticated and dysfunctional enough to justify a failure in their son's education, but something seems to point the fault on Alan as the eternal workaholic who can't get rid of his phone. The second pivot of the film occurs through the bonding process by gender, when the two men try to not overreact and over-analyze the children's problem, and the two women make it personal. And when the plot was getting more and more exciting, then Nancy took Alan's cell phone and threw it in the water, making the two men struggle to repair it, under the wives' mockeries. Then I started to feel manipulated: as a guy, I know that we, men, have many flaws but not being obsessed by objects; otherwise, we would have purses too. I thought this was a risible attempt to ridicule the guys when the two women were obviously bonding in a most grotesque way.
This highlighted what was for me the problem of the film, the pacing, it was fast, and it seemed to be like in a hurry, without a pause, or some time given to let us catch our breath. Shot in real time, it seemed like the director and the writer were in a hurry to conclude the thing, without giving much answers on the few interesting questions it raised. The mothers had to drink to get drunk fast and behave abnormally very soon. I expected a crescendo evolution that would lead to some audacity, maybe a fight, or a realization. But it felt like the whole concept of the film, adapted from a play written by Yasmina Reza was trapped in a sacred respect of the unity of time, space and plot, with no plot whatsoever.
Amusingly, my wife told me that it was typical of a Yasmina Reza play, and she immediately slept after half an hour, expecting that the movie would lead nowhere. I continued the film and I thought that maybe, it was cleverly preparing for a spectacular climax or some mind-blowing statement about couples. Well, it just ended there and I couldn't help but feel a bit cheated. Since the movie doesn't end having a point in the literal meaning of the world, I guess its point was just to depict how manners and politeness are social masks that can easily get removed when the most sensitive issues are tackled, and while even the couple's facade fails to hide the most intimate convictions.
I'm sure it could have taken more distance and explored more interesting points, but since the writer and the director didn't feel like developing the story and the characters, why should we?