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Carnage is a film about four people who hate each other and are unable to leave the room. Sometimes they make it far as the door and once or twice to the lift, though on each occasion they are pulled back by the unfinished business of their exquisite loathing and bitter contempt. With this stealthy adaptation of the Yasmina Reza stage play, director Roman Polanski has rustled up a pitch-black farce of the charmless bourgeoisie that is indulgent, actorly and so unbearably tense I found myself gulping for air and praying for release. Hang on to your armrest and break out the scotch. These people are about to go off like Roman candles.
Jodie Foster and John C Reilly respectively play Penelope and Michael, a pair of bohemian Brooklynites whose 11-year-old son was attacked in the local park. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz (sporting a passable American accent) are Nancy and Alan, the parents of the culprit, supposedly visiting to make the peace. But with the battle lines drawn across the coffee table (replete with vase of tulips and Oskar Kokoschka art book) we swiftly realise that there are to be no heroes in this war: no one to rally behind and urge on to victory. Not passive-aggressive Penny or the blusteringly insensitive Michael, who blithely admits to having thrown his daughter's beloved hamster out on the street "as though it were a sewer rat". And certainly not the brittle, mean-spirited Nancy, or Alan, a cold-blooded, misogynist lawyer on whom the movie lavishes all the best lines.
In a career stretching back through The Tenant, Repulsion and Knife in the Water, Polanski has proved himself a master at these kinds of claustrophobic chamber pieces. His direction is precise, unfussy and utterly fit for purpose, prowling the four walls of an apartment that was entirely constructed on a Paris soundstage and allowing the action to play out in real time, with no respite. If Carnage has a flaw, it could be that Polanski's apparent sympathy for Alan at times threatens to throw out the film's delicate, four-way balance. Arguably, it does turn a shade too shrill – and therefore too obviously farcical – in the final stretch, once the alcohol has been brought out and the mobile phone dumped in the vase of water.
That aside, the film barely puts a foot wrong. The acting comes at full throttle while the pacing cranks up the tension in agonising, incremental degrees. At one point this is all too much for Nancy, who proceeds to vomit copiously over the coffee table, coating Penelope's cherished Oskar Kokoschka book. It is an astonishing scene, an icebreaker like no other. And at the Venice screening, the viewers greeted it with a wild abandon, howling with delight and applauding like thunder, perhaps relieved that someone had cracked before they did themselves.
Two 11-year-old boys get into a violent playground fight that leads to their parents meeting to discuss how to handle the situation. Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet) come to the Brooklyn apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly) after their boy struck the Longstreet's son Ethan with a stick, but what starts as a friendly agreement to try to work things out turns into a angry yelling match as four very different people try to get on the same page.
The decision to bring a stageplay to the screen and how far to take it away from just being people talking in a room has produced many interesting results, and it's strange seeing Roman Polanski's adaptation of playwright Yasmina Reza's four-handed play "God of Carnage" in such proximity to George Clooney's "The Ides of March" and David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method," which both go to greater efforts to break away from the stageplay feel of their source material. One might think the shortened title of "Carnage" might mean Polanski's film is very different from the stageplay but other than bringing together four incredible actors in Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Christoph Waltz, it never strays from the one Brooklyn apartment where this story takes place.
The film opens with the credits rolling over a simple scene in a park with Manhattan in the background with a group of kids playing that leads to an altercation between the two of them ending in a violent act. It's a serious incident that has the parents of one boy visiting the other to work out how to handle the situation and it deteriorates from there.
Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Foster, Reilly) are the parents of the injured boy, portraying themselves as sensitive liberal art lovers who hope the parents of the boy who struck their son will help resolve matters. Waltz's Alan Cowan is a high-powered corporate lawyer working on a case against a pharmaceutical company, so every couple of minutes, their conversation is interrupted by his BlackBerry with a business call, something that adds greatly to the tension between them.
In any other time or place, these four people might be the best of friends despite meeting under such unpleasant circumstances. Their first encounter starts out polite enough but the longer they spend together, the faster things deteriorate and the more hilarious things get. Alan and Nancy keep trying to leave, first when things seem to be resolved then later as they're angered by the accusations about their son's behavior. They keep being convinced to return to the lion's den where a pleasant cup of coffee turns into another argument. By the third or fourth time they've been convinced to return, the four of them are drinking Scotch, which is when it turns into an ugly verbal brawl with the sides no longer as easily delineated.
It would be a shame to give away some of the funnier twists and turns that punctuate the discussion, but it has a darkly humorous tone as it deals with these people trying their best to get along but failing miserably. The singular location--mostly taking place in the living room but also sometimes going out into the hall or bathroom--harks back to Polanski's "Repulsion" in some ways except this one is fast-paced and witty and never goes to such extremes.
Other than a few barely heard voices on phone calls, "Carnage" sticks to the four leads as it watches their relationships unravel. Kate Winslet proves her worth as an actress with another unforgettable performance as the uptight Nancy, clearly a trophy wife who has grown accustomed to biting her lip about her husband's behavior; put a few glasses of Scotch into her though and that's where Winlet is able to unleash her fire. John C. Reilly shares the comedic duties with Waltz, who is so perfect in the role of Alan, his every move and gesture working perfectly to create a characterization of the typical business-class a-hole who has become far too common in New York City. Jodi Foster probably gives the most emotive performance, going from a woman of steely reserve to having a full-on breakdown.
There are no weak links among these four actors, and Polanski has worked out a way to get the type of performances out of them that flows as naturally as it may have done on stage. After the lush cinematography of "The Ghost Writer," the simple staging for "Carnage" is somewhat of a letdown, maybe because watching four people arguing in a room does get tiring despite the great cast and all the delicious twists.
By the end, one questions whether either of these marriages is as strong as the illusion created by their solidarity at the beginning, especially when the men join forces to take on the women, creating another interesting dynamic. With all that happens, it's almost alarming when the movie suddenly ends after 80 minutes without ever feeling like it dragged despite it being so dialogue-intensive. That's probably more a testament to how Yasmina Reza realized her original concept of exploring the interaction between two different sets of parents over a seemingly innocuous incident, than it is for the idea of bringing that play to the screen.
The Bottom Line:
It may be hard to justify a master like Polanski directing a movie like "Carnage" at this point in his career, since it's not nearly as flashy as his last few movies. Even so, it's a quick and witty character-based piece showcasing four unquestionable talents and not a bad way to spend 80 minutes even if it's not something that leaves you with a particularly lasting impact.
Carnage is the Opening Night selection of the 49th New York Film Festival on Friday, September 30, and then will be given a platform release on Friday, December 16.