“Hell is other people.” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that in No Exit, his 1944 play about three deceased men and women who are stuck in a room together for all eternity and left to torture each other by exposing individual fears, desires, sins and memories. The idea of exposing peoples’ true nature by sticking characters in a room together has been explored many times since, from Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay Twelve Angry Men to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, stories about individuals trapped in one location until there’s a final total breakdown. Now we have Carnage, the new film from director Roman Polanski based on the play by Yasmina Reza. Just like the aforementioned works, the film is fascinating, but it also has one other element going for it: it’s hilarious.
Set in New York City, the story begins when a young boy hits one of his schoolmates in the face with a stick while they are playing in the park. Following the incident, the parents of the two adolescents (Jodie Foster & John C. Reilly and Kate Winslet & Christoph Waltz) decide to get together and discuss the best way to resolve the problem. While things start civilly, slowly the meeting begins to spin out of control and the tension between the two families grows until it finally explodes.
Because of the style of the story, Carnage lives and dies by its performances, and, fortunately, all four central cast members excel. The script has the characters constantly changing alliances, but all of the actors have such tremendous chemistry with each other that the shifts work. One moment the two married couples could be at odds while defending their child against levied accusations, and the next the husbands will be agreeing about the positive nature of gangs while the women celebrate over a destroyed over-used cell phone – but never does the audience question the authenticity of the team change. The film is a slow build, requiring nuance from all involved, and in less talented hands the movie’s chaotic emotional scale could have suffered from pressed performances and overacting. Instead the rising emotions are gradual and earned, so when the couples really can’t stand each other anymore it’s never in question.
While it would be exciting to just watch Foster, Reilly, Waltz and Winslet scream at each other for an hour and twenty minutes, what makes Carnage absorbing is the varied arguments they have. Just like real fights, the movie begins with the couples debating about their kids, but over time the topic changes to subjects as radical as the dangers of a particular pharmaceutical product and the best way to get vomit out of an art book. The whole thing is so seamlessly strung together that it actually becomes funny, the audience left reflecting on how they got to the topic at hand and forced to laugh about it.
As an unconventional comedy – notice how Twelve Angry Men, No Exit and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are all dramas – the humor in Carnage is more rooted in character. This results in most of the laughs coming from darker moments, as the audience begins to laugh at what the parents are saying or doing, but rather the scale of their argument and the emotional torture that they are putting each other through. It’s schadenfreude that you don’t have to feel guilty about later.
The structure and style of Carnage makes it a film that’s not going to appeal to all audiences. There are some people who don’t have the attention span to watch four characters argue for nearly an hour and a half, and that’s fine. Those that can, however, will be treated to amazing performances from some of the best actors working today in a film that is uncomfortable, but entertaining to the end.