Audiences have lapped this up in the theatre and at the cinema. Once they become accustomed to the excruciating discomfort of watching a mannered conversation unravel, there is much schadenfraude to be had in the articulate dismembering of other people’s failings in this virtual cage fight.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that ‘it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles [for] what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart’ (15: 11 and 18). In ‘Carnage’, the warring couples find their sole comfort and delight in good food and are blithely more concerned for what goes into their mouths than what comes out. The actor Kate Winslet’s impressive vomiting scene is a metaphor for the bile they regurgitate over one another in dialogue.
The film works, despite the lack of realism at points (when you’ve been sick over someone else’s pristine apartment, for instance, you don’t tend to hang around to prolong the experience) because there is a dark and unsettling vein of truth to the encounter. We can be grateful that we cannot read one another’s thoughts for we would visit unending discouragements when we don’t intend them but where the peculiar indiscipline of the human mind lodges such in our consciousness before we have had time to sift them. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is unsparing in its assessment of human thought and intention and he calls on his followers to win the battle of the mind, something which St. Paul takes up in his guidance to the early Church. This mind should be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and not conformed to the standards of the age; in practice most of us fall well short of this goal and perhaps an element of this is inevitable given our susceptibility to outside influences. The battle to win our thoughts for Christ is an unremitting one, calling for such stamina that most of us just find a groove we are happy with - in part good, in part bad. Yet when we give little attention to what we are thinking it is but a short step to saying it.
This is why one crucial Christian virtue is the circuit-breaker between the brain and the tongue. While a film like ‘Carnage’ exposes the underlying hypocrisy in good manners, the discipline of withholding what we are thinking often preserves the peace and builds up our common life. This knack is sometimes deemed insincere in an era where people are encouraged to vent their feelings but it acts as a second fail-safe in social settings; when St. James encouraged us to be ‘slow to speak’ (1:19) he must surely have had this in mind.