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.

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.

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.