Underneath a veneer of civilization and democracy, is there an undercurrent of basic desire that drives everything? In the right circumstances of necessity, do people revert to their most basic, fundamentally evil, instincts? Is justice really just the advantage of the stronger over the weaker? Roman Polanski's adaptation of the Tony award-winning stage play “God of Carnage” is an exploration of precisely this set of questions. The situation is ordinary enough: one couple visiting another at their apartment to discuss a schoolyard fight that left one child hurt. The tulips on the coffee table, the cobbler, the sunny day, the stolidly middle class surroundings – are these not the signs of civilization? What else except peace and rational, bourgeois dialogue could ensue? The point is, of course, that that assumption is dangerously wrong.
Alan and Nancy, Penelope and Michael; two couples with a shiny coating of democratic civilization. Alan is a lawyer defending a drug company in the midst of allegations that the drug is dangerous, Nancy is a dutifully beautiful wife, Penelope is the epitome of bourgeois values with her upcoming book on Darfur and peach cobbler, Michael a kitchen fixture salesman. Their children appear at the beginning of the film for a fleeting moment that sets up the scenario. The conflict comes, ironically, not in the playground, but in the apartment when neither side will admit guilt. Everybody is superior to the next in posture, but interiorly a castle of cards waiting to be toppled. The latter of which inevitably happens to all four parents in the midst of an afternoon filled with whiskey, Coke, vomit, and Cuban cigars.
The atmosphere of the scene is claustrophobic on film, following closely the lack of “scene change” that would have accompanied the physical staging of the play – all the action occurs essentially in the living room, fraught with visceral emotions and no place to run. The whirlwind of emotions that each parent went through in the course of a short 79 minutes at times had me laughing for the ridiculousness of it all. The deep message of the play, however, is disturbing. Two lines characterize the underlying moral of the story. The first: “I believe in the god of carnage, the god who’s ruled from time immemorial.” All the petty civilization is a compromise between base desire and will-to-power. Even the desire for “human rights” is merely the will-to-power in a different form; in this case, desire for being applauded for my “morality.” Will-to-power is the only reality. The other: “We're born alone and we die alone.... who wants a scotch?” Materialism and pursuit of desire, despite inevitable lack of fulfillment, is the best we can do. My will-to-power excludes all others. To paraphrase Sartre, “Hell is other people.”
Nihilism is not a fun position, but, then again, it's not meant to be. What interests me most in Carnage is not the nihilism per se, but how middle class materialism is so naturally fitted with paganism. Alan, the lawyer who most closely represents Polanski's own pessimistic thinking, doesn't merely espouse nihilism but a new god – the god of carnage. There is a cosmic fatalism to the movie – a world ruled by unseen forces intent on our destruction. How liberating the Gospel was to those in ancient bourgeouis Rome who labored under the oppression of gods which were feared, rather than loved! The gods of carnage are fearful masters. The modern world offers sacrifice to the god of carnage, but we bring a God who offers Himself as sacrifice to our carnage. And, further, one who liberates us from the fatalism of death by breaking the bonds of death. How much more liberating can the truth be that we live in a world created by Wisdom and Love Himself who was content not only to create us but to die for us as well?
My Rating: 5.5 out of 10