In 'Carnage,' the Characters Are Trapped but the Viewers Aren't

Roman Polanski's trademark obsession with enclosed spaces doesn't quite pay off in his latest film.

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Sony Pictures Classics

Something very ugly must have happened to Roman Polanski while living within the confines of an apartment. Unfortunate events occur all the time in the director's films, but when most of the action takes place in an apartment building, there's something particularly disturbing about how he turns the safe haven of home sweet home into instruments of terror. Protective walls become claustrophobic prisons, and those within are trapped alongside their own deteriorating sanity.

Polanski's latest, Carnage (heading to national release today), returns the director to the high-rise for the first time since 1976's The Tenant, which concluded the so-called "Apartment Trilogy" that began with Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). Based on the hit play Gods of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, it takes place solely in the apartment and exterior hallway of the residence of Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly). It's a setting so hermetically sealed that one can't help but wonder if the notion of such an inescapable space was informed at all by Polanski's 2009 house arrest.

Where previously we felt as trapped in Polanski's apartments as his characters, in 'Carnage' we only ever peek in through the window.

Another couple, Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz), are visiting the apartment on an awkward errand: Their son hit Penelope and Michael's son with a stick on the playground, breaking two of his teeth. What begins as a simple exercise in drawing up an agreement regarding the altercation ends up, only 80 mostly real-time minutes later, in a drunken mess of tears, vomit, acrimony, and wasted 18-year-old single malt scotch. True, nobody is violated by Satan and forced to bear the devil's spawn as in Rosemary, but by the time this is over, some of these characters may have preferred that fate to living through this ordeal.

The movie's theatrical source highlights a thread running through a number of Polanski's works, and not only to the apartment films: a frequent commitment to the Aristotle's dramatic unities, particularly where place and time are concerned. Restricting most of a drama to an apartment (or a boat, a cruise ship, or an isolated house on a cliff, all of which have served as the near-singular settings for previous Polanski films) within a compressed timeline creates the same intimate focus as a play. It's an isolation that Polanski normally uses to a counterintuitive advantage, making these enclosed spaces hugely cinematic despite the limited square footage. But with Carnage, the director's work never fully transitions from stage to screen.

Unlike the films of the Apartment Trilogy, Carnage is less psychological horror and more psychological warfare, and in that sense bears greater similarity to Polanski's 1962 debut, Knife in the Water. That film, apart from its driving bookends, also had a single setting (a sailboat) and a single-day timeline, and also focused on the shifting factions and manipulations of previously unacquainted people forced to share a small space. Just as the couple at the center of Knife enter the film at an obviously rocky point in their relationship, it quickly becomes apparent that both of Carnage's upper-middle-class New Yorker couples are not in the springtime of their respective romances. Penelope's political correctness is obviously galling to her regular-Joe husband Michael, just as his apparent insensitivity about the importance of the family gerbil or geopolitical strife in Africa are thorns in her side. Their visitors are even worse off, as the boorish Alan spends most of his time on phone calls to his office (Waltz's zeal in playing an uncaring bully provides the film with some of its best—and darkest—laughs) and Nancy is so amenable to being regularly steamrolled by him that the eventual explosion of years of bottled tension seems inevitable within the first few minutes.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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