One morning during a school yard disagreement, a kid named Zachary hits a kid named Ethan in the face with a stick, cutting his lip and breaking two of his teeth ("...and causing nerve damage to the right incisor," his Mother will curtly point out). Later, Zachary's parents (The Cowans, played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) arrive at the Brooklyn apartment of Ethan's parents (The Longstreets, played by Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) to discuss the aftermath. Obviously, the children are too immature to work out this problem by themselves, so the parents get involved. What follows is some of the most awkward, uncomfortable, and hilariously tension-filled moments this side of The Office (the UK one, obviously), an interesting tonal departure for director Roman Polanski.
Many people will attempt to interpret Carnage sociologically or politically, but personally, this film version of Yasmina Reza's stage play, God of Carnage (unseen by me), is exactly what is seems: 80 minutes of agonizing fun; a one-room tale (the best of its kind since Robert Altman's Secret Honor) in which the civilized parents meet to talk over coffee & 'cobbler' and gradually descend into a sick and chaotic frenzy. Polanski is no stranger to this type of single room film, recalling the classic Catherine Deneuve flick Repulsion. That would have been a good title for this movie, too.
The horrors unleashed by Reza on her characters speak volumes. I sense her disdain. Their shallow bourgeoisie niceties are the targets of assault in some fine comedic moments. Waltz's endlessly buzzing phone is a great flourish, as is the destruction of Foster's beloved art book (which I'll admit must have worked better on stage). These events bring out the worst in both couples, the cracks in their relationships getting bigger with each passing second. Kate Winslet plays Mrs. Cowan with a slow burn, perfectly offsetting her arrogant, self-absorbed husband. Christoph Waltz gives an understated performance in what, oddly enough, may be the most likeable character in the film (other than the hamster).
Jodie Foster's Mrs. Longstreet (a self-described "advocate for civilized behavior") is spiteful and nasty from line one as the injured boy's mother. Everything she says is either masked criticism, politely undercutting, or downright hostile. Her "aw shucks" husband (Reilly) quietly supports her until he feels he has been attacked personally. His demeanor shifts, revealing his bad temper. Booze only worsens matters. This portion of the film occasionally becomes tiresome as attitudes, emotions, and alliances change and then change back again. It begins as couple versus couple. Then it's the wives slamming the husbands. And then the husbands come back at the wives. Thankfully, a twist on the ringing phone gag via an off-camera character saves this sequence entirely.
But I found myself realizing: if Carnage is about the breakdown of civilized behavior, as many critics have stated the stage play is, then the film's ending makes no sense. The final shot of Carnage implies that there is still some shred of hope that the previous 79 minutes did not suggest. And why is the subject of this argument a school yard fight, if it is not a thematic choice? Maturity does not cure hostility. But there I go, attempting to interpret some kind of meaning in the text. Regardless, Polanski is right at home with this material; his direction and Pawal Edelman's subtle camera work all seem almost effortless.
At its core, Carnage succeeds as a study of the breakdown of mannered adult behavior under emotional/social stress and anxiety. ("It's nerves! It's just nerves!" bellows Reilly at one point.) These people are supposed to be the grown ups. They should be able to discuss this issue calmly. But with the titular line, "The God of Carnage," Reza and Polanski are saying something very specific. Humans are animals and we are taught to fight -- tooth and nail -- against our nastier, more feral impulses. One thing that every human being has in common is the socially required suppression of anger. I really don't mean to make this film sound so heavy. Thank God it is also very entertaining.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.