Carnage: The joys of watching people being horrible

If you’re the sort of person who insists on likeable characters in entertainment, Carnage might be the most unpleasant film you’ve ever seen. The characters are dishonest, hypocritical, condescending, arrogant, snide, antagonistic, and insulting. They begin the film with a mask of pleasantries covering their inner ugliness, but by the time the credits roll everyone has been exposed as a tremendous asshole.

But with four Oscars and another nine nominations between them, the cast makes spending 90 minutes with these assholes as enjoyable as humanly possible.

The teams, at first, are easily defined: Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) pay a visit to Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) to discuss a violent altercation between their sons. But while everyone can agree, pleasantly and civilly, about the need for apologies and accountability, minor disagreements spiral out of control and the tone escalates from cooperative to snarky to aggressively hysterical.

Penny preaches forgiveness and mutual respect while continuously exaggerating the severity of the incident. Nancy is initially open to taking responsibility for her son’s actions, but grows to resent the increasingly accusatory tones and looks to spread the blame. Alan is completely disinterested in the whole affair and spends a third of the film talking on his cellphone, descending into the conversation every now and then to assert his superiority. Michael is mostly along for the ride, supporting his wife in theory without sharing her passion and intensity.

Christoph Waltz is great fun to watch as he cruises through the film, deflating Penny’s passive-aggressive martyrdom, ignoring his wife, and patronizing Michael’s career in hardware sales. At times, it seems as though he only takes an interest in the proceedings when he has the opportunity to demonstrate how superior he is to everyone else, how much more significant his life is.  If Carnage was an M. Night Shyamalan film, Alan would be revealed to be the devil, or possibly an alien, in the final scene, a supernatural and/or extraterrestrial interloper sent to degrade everyone else’s humanity.

Winslet has more of a slow burn: Nancy doesn’t do a whole lot for the first two thirds of the movie, which makes her final-act explosion all the more spectacular. She tries her best to  be good-natured and accommodating under increasingly difficult circumstances, withstanding her husband’s indifference,  Penelope’s guiltmongering, and a peach cobbler that may have been past its prime.

Meanwhile, I’m still not certain whether Penelope is the most sympathetic character or the most irritating one. She clearly means well, but she can’t quite put aside her notions of superiority; at least Alan is up front about his self-importance. Penny wants so badly to be good and right, and have someone acknowledge it, but no such recognition is forthcoming.

Everyone clashes: The upper and middle class, victim and abuser, husbands and wives. The only common ground to be found is that everyone hates Alan’s cellphone. Peeling away civility is a common literary theme, but normally you have to strand your protagonists on an island to get this sort of descent into savagery.

Carnage is based on a play, and it certainly feels like one at times: The entire film, aside from a brief prologue and epilogue, takes place in Penny and Michael’s apartment. But Polanski makes it all work, taking what could be stolid and unimaginative staging and keeping the camera moving with the characters, alternately isolating them and forcing them much closer than they’d like. Carnage has a tremendously well-defined sense of place; by the end of the film, it feels like you’ve been stuck in the apartment for the whole time.

The language is often theatrical, though it flows much better when taken as a whole than when edited together into the trailer.

By the time the credits roll, Carnage is all blood and bile as hysterical accusations and insults fly wildly in the tiny apartment, sometimes hitting their target (Waltz tends to be the most precise, and most often deliberately nasty), sometimes spraying them randomly into the crowd.

For some reason, it all reminds me of Ralph Steadman’s interpretation of the lounge lizards in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas:

Lounge Lizards, by Ralph Steadman, from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

“We’re right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo! And somebody’s giving booze to these goddamn things! It won’t be long before they tear us to shreds.”

But as entertaining as Carnage’s hysteria is to watch, one ultimately wonders what the point is. There are few developments to speak of: The characters start out bad, get worse, and then get even worse than that. If the point is Human beings can be tremendous assholes, then it’s well-delivered, but point was made amply well in the first ten minutes. There seems nowhere to go at the end, and so Carnage simply ends; while I can appreciate an ambiguous or depressing ending as well as anyone, Carnage doesn’t do anything to stay with you after you leave the theatre.

Carnage does all the little things well: It has a lot of snappy, clever, and vicious dialogue, delivered with great enthusiasm by a fantastic cast. It’s surprisingly fast-paced and visually compelling for a movie without much action and one of the tiniest sets you’re likely to see. But like a Michael Bay film, it simply piles explosion upon explosion, following an exploding car with an exploding helicopter and calling it development.

There’s a lot of sound and fury, but ultimately Carnage isn’t terribly significant. It’s a perfectly fun film, but you can’t help feeling like there should be something more.