The petty resentments of polite society are ruthlessly exposed in Carnage, Roman Polanski’s deliciously tart four-hander on parental rivalry. His taught dramady sees Alan and Nancy (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) invited to the home of fellow parents Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) after their son is the apparent aggressor in a schoolyard altercation. What begins as a toe-curling exercise in liberal conflict resolution soon descends into a farce of petty squabbling, physical altercations and hysteria as each succumbs to their base prejudices. The sort of film Michael Haneke might make if he had a sense of humour, Carnage is a withering takedown of a manicured class.
An adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s feted Broadway play The God of Carnage, Polanski has created a fantastically cynical drama. Filmed in a single location and unspooling in real time, it is an example of creating an atmosphere of unease primed to explode, as Foster’s high minded, patronising Penelope and Waltz’s flippant, insouciant Alan combine to light the fuse on a powder keg. With an all-too-recognisable sense of politeness agonisingly preventing Alan and Nancy leaving the prim New York apartment, the couples are forced to prolong the agony even after they have openly mocked each other’s values, competitively badmouthed their children and, in one fantastic scene, vomited on the art collection.
Committed to keeping things interesting, class resentment (Michael works in hardware supplies, Alan in corporate law) and enmity between husbands and wives leads to shifting alliances and power dynamic across seventy mostly excruciating minutes. Even when the film begins to struggle to find new terrain, such as in the contrived subplot in which Alan represents a company supplying dodgy pharmaceuticals to Michael’s mother, it remains fantastically played, brittle entertainment.
The single, restrictive scenario always puts extra pressure on performances, and the strength of Carnage ultimately lies in four players delivering razor-sharp takes on a crackling, often nasty script. Jodie Foster is convincingly unstable and unbearable as the film’s most eccentric character, while Winslet and Reilly put in quieter performances as the more conciliatory players, an approach that only serves to make their eventual explosions all the more effective.
Carnage, though, ultimately belongs to Waltz. A screen presence so magnetic that his only-recent discovery remains baffling, he is priceless as the borderline-amoral Alan. What’s more, in his speech about his belief in the ‘God of Carnage’ and the true, animalistic nature of humanity, he boasts the film’s central thematic moment. One suspects that Alan is the c losest thing to Polanski’s spirit onscreen, and indeed it is Polanski himself who is the God of Carnage here, overseeing a deliciously brutal assassination of bourgeois dishonesty.