Directed by Roman Polanski. Written by Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski; based on Reza's play "God of Carnage." Starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly. Running time: 79 minutes. Rated R.
Carnage is about the thin veneer that separates sophisticated adults from their savage instincts, and how quickly polite chitchat can break down into petty squabbling. These are the sort of people who read the New York Times' Sunday Book Review while sipping free-trade coffee and nibbling homemade cobbler, but within an hour of increasingly heated conversation are at each other's throats. What's intended as a friendly mediation session between the parents of two boys involved in a fierce schoolyard brawl quickly devolves into a round of recriminations, insults, hysteria and ultimately tears and vomit. Claustrophobic by design, the film crams you into confined space with four characters who don't want to be trapped together, then squeezes the lid shut on the pressure cooker and lets the fun begin.
Four stellar, Oscar-nominated actors play the couples: Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly as the class-conscious Penny and Mike Longstreet, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz as the more well-heeled but brittle Nancy and Alan Cowan. Penny is a tightly wound but well-intentioned NPR donor-type, devoted to her volumes of rare art books and the books she writes about genocides in Africa that no one reads. Foster plays her with glass-scratching intensity, as if her entire body were one long exposed nerve, maintaining an energy level that eventually wears out the viewer. Her husband, meanwhile, is a jocular plumbing supply salesman, who grins and puts on the facade of politeness, including being stuffed into a sweater like a sausage. Reilly, with his wild Brillo pad mop and jovial mug is more Baloo the bear than an urbane New Yorker, and his innately comedic presence tends to break the spell of the film's tense moments. Winslet is picture perfect as Nancy, an icy blonde who struggles to bury her deep contempt beneath waves of forced gentility. Waltz plays the menacing slow-burn brilliantly, and his legal shark Alan has less compunction about playing nice; he's bored of the whole affair, more concerned with the worried big pharma client on the other end of his ever-ringing cell phone. That phone, and Penny's precious books, serve as tethers to a world that exists beyond the reality of moment, one that nobody seems to want to face. When the totems break, things spiral out of control.
This antic, compact movie was adapted by Roman Polanski and playwright Yasmina Reza from her Broadway hit God of Carnage, and it sometimes feels stage bound and absurdly histrionic, despite the director's best efforts. As the camera zooms ever tighter on the actor's faces we feel as eager as they do to head for an exit, though the film is funny, sharp and never dull. It exists in a nether world, the New York City of the imagination, a place the controversial, exiled Polanski will probably never set foot in again, but seems compelled to work out his issues with.
Thematically, the film could be read as a rebuke of shrill, uptown liberalism, in that the cynical conservative Alan is the only even vaguely likable character; though his charms are purely devilish. More than anything the movie speaks to the impossibility of real empathy or understanding in modern America; a place where our personal ambitions seem to conflict with our neighbors needs, and our need to shout our insecurities and fears is greater than our ability to listen.
Opens Friday, Jan. 13, at the Landmark Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.