Cruelty and Splendor, Chaos, Balance (or: It Gets Worse)

Carnage (2011)

illustration by Brianna Ashby


ALAN: Nancy, it’s absurd to drink in your condition.

NANCY: What condition? I’m perfect.

Ispent a night drinking with old college friends a few weeks ago, and the next morning, I had to wake up early and go to a family get-together. I excused myself early on into the lunch to puke up half a banana in the bathroom, and when I got back to the table, I whispered to my mother, “Hey, just so you know, I’m working with a pretty nasty migraine right now. I might need to head home early.”

“What did you drink last night?” she asked.

“No, I have a migraine,” I clarified, as if she was a stupid person.

“Uh huh, what did you drink?” she clarified, as if I was a stupid person.

I sighed, because in this situation, I was the stupid person. “Gin.”

She sighed too. “You don’t learn, do you?”


PENELOPE: I don’t have a sense of humor, and I don’t want one!

I feel like it’s safe to say that I am not the target demographic for Carnage. I’m not a parent, nor am I a career-driven professional. There is no “entry point” for me as a viewer. I cannot truly relate to these people. When Nancy (Kate Winslet—icy, vicious, drunk) refers to herself as an investment broker, I’m not totally sure I know what that means. And yet, when I saw Carnage in theatres, in the winter of 2012, I was a 20 year old college student, and this movie made me laugh. It made me laugh harder than it had any right to. And for a movie that ends on the line, “This is the worst day of my life, too,” the whole thing made me feel pretty good about myself.

Based on the 2006 French play Le Dieu du Carnage (God of Carnage) by Yasmina Reza, the Roman Polanski film adaptation is good—not great, but good. It doesn’t particularly benefit from being adapted from stage to screen, but it doesn’t suffer either. Carnage unfolds in a single afternoon. It is the story of the Cowans—Nancy and Alan—and the Longstreets—Penelope and Michael—and their failed attempt to resolve a conflict between their 11 year old sons. Though the afternoon begins with both couples on equal, soft-spoken terms, it quite quickly devolves into chaos.

By the time Nancy vomits all over the Longstreets’ living room, everything is already a disaster.


MICHAEL: The couple is the worst ordeal that God has ever inflicted on us. The couple and the family.

I graduated from college in June with a degree in English and a job in nothing. I am your statistic—your unpaid intern, your hyper-technological millennial, your Time and The Atlantic focal point. I’m in debt. I live at home with my parents. Not a girl, not yet a woman. My peers look better, at least on paper. They’re educators, campaign managers, and consultants. One of my friends made a reference to her “clients” the other day, and I nearly choked on a piece of bread.

I had dinner with an old friend a few weeks ago. In between conversation topics like her future wedding plans and her future baby plans, she leaned across the table and whispered dramatically, “Aren’t you embarrassed? Just, like, a little bit, to still be living at home? Not really, like, doing anything?”

My parents work 9–5 jobs. I work evenings in the food service industry. I come home at 1am most nights, stumble into whatever seasonal decorations they’ve spent the evening putting up (this past week, it was dried ears of corn), and lie on the foot of my parents’ bed.

“I’m home,” I’ll tell them.

“Okay,” they’ll say. “We’re asleep.”

Sometimes I recap my day for them, sometimes I just let them go back to bed. They wake up around 5:30 in the morning and head off to work before I’m even awake. It’s more like being a tenant at a B&B than it is living at home. We exist in a baffling in-between, where I am not really a child and they are not really my parents. I can make my own decisions, come home whenever I want, and they’ll be grumpy, but that’s about it.

On one particular Sunday morning, when all of us were home, my parents took half an hour to balance the checkbook and do bills while I ate breakfast. I pitched some questions—“You guys wanna see a movie today?” and “How about the Bears, huh?”—to no response. They were content to ignore me while they finished their business. Pay attention to me! I wanted to shout. I’m never here. I have things to say.

“You love me, right?” I asked instead.

“Yes,” they said.

“But you also kinda resent me?”


“Okay, good,” I said, and finished my breakfast.


MICHAEL: Look, we’re all decent people, all four of us.

Each set of parents in Carnage comes with their own mask. Nancy and Alan (Christoph Waltz) are a high-powered executive couple, an investment broker and an attorney. They’re detached and poised. I could watch Nancy disinfect her hands with a small bottle of Purell and touch up her make-up for hours. For her, appearance is everything, all of it. Alan’s Blackberry is essentially glued to the palm of his hand.

Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), on the other hand, are false mediators perched on a high horse of justice. Penelope is a writer who speaks of the horrors of Darfur with a simpering know-it-all attitude. In one of my favorite lines from the film, she scolds Alan, “Don’t you tell me about Africa. I know all about suffering in Africa!” Michael, a salesman, is a coward: a simple, short-tempered fearful man.

Penelope and Michael’s son Ethan is the victim on the surface level. In a physical altercation with Nancy and Alan’s son, Zachary, he loses two teeth and suffers nerve damage after taking a stick to the face. Zachary, however, was provoked as Ethan barred him from joining his “gang.” And in turn, Zachary is also the victim. But—of course—so is Alan, who is meant to be at work during the day, and Penelope, who is traumatized by her son’s disfigurement, and Nancy, who doesn’t particularly care, but pretends, and Michael? Well, his punishment is just having to be there.

Alan and Nancy fall from grace, but in the sloppy, undistinguished way that those who groom themselves constantly do. Both robbed of their primary loves by the end of the film—for Alan, his phone, and for Nancy, her purse—they sit, together, throwing insults at the Longstreets with nothing left to lose. Michael is reduced to an angry giant, practically bursting out of the sweater his wife has forced him to wear. Penelope, however, falls the furthest. She believed in a higher power, a true sense of justice, and only as she gets drunker (and, in turn, sadder) does she realize it means nothing. “Doing the right thing is just futile,” she sobs. “Honesty is just stupidity.”

And when Alan invokes the laws of chaos—praying only to the god of carnage—one begins to think that Penelope might just believe him.


PENELOPE: Why does everything have to be so exhausting?

No one actually tells you how to graduate from college. There’s this mysterious thing where everyone just starts referring to post-grad life as “the real world,” as if you’ve been living on a fake planet with a bunch of male feminists and composting enthusiasts for the past four years. And, okay, maybe that is a fake planet, but it doesn’t make it less real. But you start to get convinced that there’s a shift somewhere. For a long time, you are a fake person, and then at some point, you become a real person. Apparently.

The other week, I worked nearly 55 hours, balancing a freelance reporting gig with my nearly full-time food service job and non-paying arts industry internship. I knew I would break at some point during the week, and I did. After four days of working over fifteen hours straight, I sobbed through the entire drive home, through my evening shower, and at the foot of my parents’ bed at two in the morning.

“We want to help you,” my mother said quietly, “but also we’re not sure how to help you. And it’s two in the morning.”

The next morning, I woke up at 6:30, gearing up for my last day of this schedule. I sat across the table from my father, who drinks tea and reads the paper and generally keeps to himself in the morning. My head was buried in my arms, trying to catch a few more seconds of sleep while coffee brewed.

My father looked up from the table. “I’m sorry you’re stressed,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

He thought for a moment. “I know you’re tired and you have a lot—well, just. This is what life is, you know? It’s pretty shitty.”

I laughed. “That’s your advice?”

“It’s not advice,” he clarified, “it’s what it is.”


MICHAEL: We’re born alone, and we die alone. That’s it. Who wants a little scotch?

Carnage isn’t really the kind of movie you can spoil. People set out to accomplish a task, and they fail. There is a hint of a twist, though. On the outside, Carnage is a movie about adults trying to solve the problems of children; deep down, Carnage is a movie about children trying to solve their own problems. They drink, they cry, they vomit. Teeth are broken, but so are toys. You can go halfway across town to fetch a nice bouquet of tulips, but at the end of the day, flowers are just flowers, and they’ll be gone soon enough.

The truth is, you don’t become a real person. You never become a real person. I don’t know anyone who is a real person. My parents don’t resent me because I am their child. My parents resent me because they’re children, too. We’re a household of children, some just a little more tired than others.

I can put on a blazer and a skirt, and I can hand you my résumé and talk about marketing. But I can also sit across from you at a bar, listen to you talk about your wedding plans, and try to figure out which utensil will work best if I need to puncture my own ear drums. The god of carnage is there, perched in a corner, waiting to strike whenever called upon. The impulse to pick up a stick and whack someone who calls us a name upside the head is still there, only a little muted, dulled with age. When I was mistreated by a supervisor, my mother asked if she needed to make a phone call about it.

“You don’t need to do that,” I said. “I’m an adult.”

“Well, I’m an adult too, and I know how to scream at someone.”

And that was when I realized—we are the same. We’re adults. We’re children. It doesn’t matter. We both fight that urge to scream and yell, and mostly we send passive-aggressive emails.

In the last few minutes of the film, Penelope accuses Nancy of not even caring about the well-being of her own child, let alone the well-being of the injured Ethan. And Alan suggests—correctly—that no one ever cared.

“But I do care,” Nancy protests, barely sober enough to figure out what is happening. “I really do care.”

Alan pats her hand. “Yes, we care. In a hysterical way, not like heroic figures of a social movement.”

This is how we care: crying, vomiting, heads cradled in hands at kitchen tables, barely acknowledging our own faults at two in the morning. We threaten to yell, to scream, to hit, but more often than not, we just go back to sleep. It might be the worst day of my life, your life, but then there is a new day. A better day, maybe, but probably the same. Or worse.

So we keep going. This is how we care.