At one point in Carnage, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s award-winning play, Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) confesses to Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) his belief in the “god of carnage” -- the original title of Reza’s play -- a theoretical incarnation of mankind’s more primal, aggressive tendencies. The question is not whether this maniacal deity actually exists (let’s assume here that it does), but whether it initially pitted Zachary Cowan against Ethan Longstreet in a playground confrontation or is merely using that situation as a trigger to pit Zachary’s parents against Ethan’s. (Of course, there’s always ‘all of the above.’)
Given the situation’s violent origins, interaction between the adults begins courteously enough: Alan and Nancy (Kate Winslet) have given their apologies to Penelope and Michael (John C. Reilly) and they proceed to draft up a verbal agreement together. But then Alan quibbles with Penelope’s particular wording of the inciting incident (surely, his son wasn’t “armed” with a stick, but merely carrying one), a generous offering of coffee and cobbler backfires, and before we know it, the power dynamics of both couples begin to shift along the lines of politics, gender politics, class strife, parental responsibility, marital happiness, and hypocrisy in general.
Coming in at just 79 minutes, Carnage is a transparent acting showcase on-screen more than the fully formed farce of stage, but thanks to all that is spewed forth (not always words, I’m afraid), the results are still frequently hilarious. The theatrical conceit eases away, though never quite vanishes, as the characters resign themselves to this Brooklyn apartment, toeing the line between polite consideration and petty compromise until the location becomes their world entire -- the one place where they can relinquish manners and proceed to bicker for dominance, validation, control before exiting out into a city that, like their children, couldn’t really care less at the end of the day.
Despite a co-writing credit with Reza, Polanski doesn’t deviate by much, although the Cowans’ ill-fated attempts to make it out the door become an odd, credibility-strained joke unto itself, with politeness and then pride luring them back into the fray. There’s enough other nonsense taking place on the periphery -- with Michael under fire for ditching the family hamster outdoors and workaholic Alan constantly glued to his cell phone -- that the potential for conflict rarely runs low, and Polanski (having recently experienced house arrest for himself) keeps the characters constantly confined by door frames, mirrors, and close-ups.
And oh, what fun the players are clearly having. At the risk of inviting accusations of gender bias, Reilly and Waltz tend to steal the show here, with the former liberated by the absence of airs and the latter never once burdened with notions of common courtesy. Winslet gets wonderfully wound up while Foster finds herself worn down (her performance comes closest to downright hysterics in a crew that is by no means holding back), and the whole lot gets drunk much faster than you’d think over the back half of an afternoon.
Sometimes, for story’s sake, these characters act like outright idiots rather than regressing as intended to a more facile state of being. Eventually, though, they -- and the film -- find their belligerent groove, and from then until the regrettable whimper of the final frames, it’s bad behavior orchestrated well.