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

Allegiances shift quickly as these characters gang up on one another, first over the injuries one son has caused to the other, then over slights real and imagined that pile up amid the bickering. What starts as couple vs. couple becomes gender vs. gender, three ganging up on one, or every man and woman for him and herself. But unlike Knife, which had long stretches of silence in which Polanski creates tension between characters in the way he's always done best—with his camera—Carnage is nothing but endless conversation, and the director gets buried under all the words.

Some of the film's problems do lie in the content of those words, which try a little too hard to attack bourgeois hypocrisy and the barely suppressed prejudices of the two-faced privileged class. The influences of Luis Buñuel's 1962 The Exterminating Angel are unmistakeable: On multiple occasions Nancy and Alan attempt to leave, and even get as far as the elevator before being drawn back into the apartment for more arguing. Unlike Angel, the cause isn't an unexplained mystical force; it's just pride and the desire to have the last word. But the result is the same: the complete breakdown of the social graces these people hold dear. (Except perhaps for Alan: The only thing he holds dear is his BlackBerry.)

The attempts at cultural criticism feel forced at best, and eye-rollingly stereotypical at worst: Callous men are obsessed with their gadgets! Over-emotional women are obsessed with the contents of their purses!

But the larger issues in Carnage is in how it's been adapted, which is a surprise given Polanski's normally sure hand with this kind of material. His underappreciated 1994 gem, Death and the Maiden (once again, mostly a single setting, short timeline) was also based on a play, by Ariel Dorfman, and was hugely successful at breaking the drama out of the theater. After seeing Polanski's version, it's difficult to even imagine a stage production anymore, as it would lack the visual thrill of the proverbial dark and stormy night he creates onscreen, and the gloomy, ocean-pounded cliff-side setting. It's like trying to imagine North by Northwest without Mount Rushmore or the crop-duster. The same is true of his films that appear to be structured like theatrical works in terms of setting and time; after watching them, there's no question that they could only be successful as films.

That's not true of Carnage, though. At all times, we are acutely aware that the film feels like a four-walled play with a camera stuck in the middle. The actors play their parts just as large as they'd need to onstage, and Polanski makes little effort to alter the material to the medium. The result feels rushed and incomplete, as if he called in the ensemble to do a dress rehearsal with cameras rolling, and then decided to surprise everyone by yelling "that's a wrap!" at the end of the day.

The success of the earlier apartment films hinged on the ways in which Polanski used his camera to create an uncomfortable alternate reality that unsettled the viewer to the core. This apartment may be no more pleasant to spend time in than the others, but the stagey presentation allows us just enough comfortable distance to observe dispassionately. Where previously we felt just as trapped in Polanski's apartments as his characters, grateful for the credits to roll and the walls to melt away, in Carnage we only ever peek in through the window, free to leave at any time.

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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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