Ready for a shocker? Down deep, civilized people are not that civilized! They may even be egotistical monsters eager to savage their fellow humans in a quest for supremacy. For anyone who read Lord of the Flies in high school, has watched reality TV or lives life observantly, the message of Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play God of Carnage isn’t surprising, or particularly enlightening. But, using four talented actors, director Roman Polanski has turned this claustrophobic vignette — it all takes place in one Brooklyn apartment — into a nastily watchable black comedy.
The well-appointed apartment, packed with rare art catalogs and African sculptures, belongs to Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster). He sells pots and pans; she writes books about Darfur. Their 11-year-old son has just lost two teeth to playground aggression, prompting the Longstreets to invite the attacker’s parents, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), over for a very civilized little talk.
As the film begins, the four are concluding their business, with Penelope drafting a legalistic account of the unpleasantness. The Longstreets don’t want money — they’ve got dental insurance, they remark casually. Everyone is bidding a civilized farewell, when circumstances conspire to keep the Cowans where they are.
And keep them, and keep them. By the end of the 80-minute film, marital woes have been aired, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style; property has been destroyed; and culture wars have been waged in miniature. Minor irritations, like corporate lawyer Alan’s constant yammering on his cellphone, have become reasons to inflict, yes, carnage.
Not in the literal sense, unfortunately. The film could have achieved hilarious closure by ending with a bloodbath, as one character after another succumbed to a yuppie-specific variant of the rage virus from 28 Days Later. As it is, Carnage just sort of ends. But it still recalls a horror movie: The devices used to keep the two couples in one place are as absurd as any ever deployed to put characters in harm’s way in a slasher film.
With four novice actors chewing the scenery, the film would have been sheer torture; luckily, Polanski is working with pros. Each couple’s power imbalance is evident 10 minutes into the film: Holier-than-thou Penelope bosses around menschy Michael, while amoral, career-driven Alan — who represents Big Pharma against the little guy — keeps his wife in a state of glassy-eyed resentment.
As conflict strains these already-tense relationships, three of the participants are a joy to watch. Reilly does great work expanding — and darkening — the easygoing doofus he so often plays. (If only he’d had that freedom in We Need to Talk About Kevin.) Winslet finds surprising cruelty and wit in her passive-aggressive Stepford wife character, who can’t seem to decide who nauseates her more, the preachy Longstreets or her husband. Waltz reprises his smiling-sociopath shtik from Inglourious Basterds and contributes some of the film’s biggest laughs. (“Our son is a maniac,” he announces, with obvious pride.)
The one who isn’t fun to watch, award nominations or not, is Foster. Playing a woman so high minded and contemptuous of human frailty that she proclaims, “I don’t want a sense of humor,” she’s believable enough to set your teeth on edge. While it’s clear Penelope’s grating intensity comes from a sense that she hasn’t lived up to her own ideals, the play never gives her a redeeming moment of self-awareness. Reza and Polanski seem content to whip off her politically correct mask and reveal a hideous human being.
A great drama would do more than state what we all suspect anyway. Polanski uses crafty framing, set design and other tricks to make Carnage as interesting as it can be, but it’s still a film leading to a foregone conclusion: People suck.