After their sons have a fight at school, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly) and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) agree to have a cordial meeting to discuss the problem. They meet in the Cowan apartment in Brooklyn and it begins amicably enough, but the atmosphere deteriorates and recriminations lead to confrontations.
Review by Louise Keller:
A whole gamut of emotions is canvassed in Roman Polanski's gripping exposé of the frailty of the human condition through the unravelling of social niceties. Polanski has collaborated with Yasmina Reza, on whose play (God of Carnage) the screenplay is based, to deliver a stunning film filled with insights and observations about relationships and the interaction between them. The resulting film is a splendid four-hander, offering unlimited scope for a great cast to shine as two couples that pierce through the veneer of etiquette and civility. It's fascinating, confronting and often extremely funny in the way only real life situations can be, while the ever-present essence of truth hovers throughout.
It all begins with an issue about conflict and resolution. Polanski sets the scene simply and succinctly by showing two eleven year old boys in conflict in the park. Alexandre Desplat's escalating, edgy score emphasises the drama of one boy hitting the other with a stick. The camera remains afar. Then the real action begins as the two sets of parents meet to try and find a resolution.
When we meet the two couples Penelope and Michael (Foster, Reilly) and Nancy and Alan (Winslet, Waltz), they are quibbling about the wording of the statement Penelope is typing about the incident. The word 'armed with' is replaced by the innocuous term 'holding'. Over the period of the next 80 minutes, polite formality dissolves into point scoring, brutal honesty and hostility as conciliation attempts turn sour, tactless opinions are imposed and savage barbs exchanged.
Christoph Waltz is the real scene stealer as the supercilious attorney endlessly on his mobile phone, throwing around provocative words like manipulation, liability, victims, benefits and risk. It is with disarming ease that Waltz conveys arrogant disregard for the others in the room; snide remarks are his speciality.
Nancy (Winslet), the smartly dressed investment broker with bright red lips and nails to match, starts to let loose as she vomits over Penelope's precious, irreplaceable art books. Then the blame game begins with Michael's suggestion it is the result of Penelope's apple and pear cobbler that they have just eaten - or is it the warm coke?
Alan (Reilly) seems like a meat and potatoes man, a houseware salesman who has little time for his politically correct wife whose moral conscience is like a concrete slab around her neck. Penelope (Foster) looks suitably drab for someone who bears the burden of guilt for life's privileges while she writes a book about Darfour. The scene after Nancy vomits is almost farcical as Penelope frantically sprays cologne everywhere, Michael is busily at work holding the hairdryer to dry the books and Alan is dryly suggesting to Nancy, she stays near the bucket.
The dialogue snaps along as all information acquired is used by both couples against each other - from small things like silly nicknames and the pet hamster to big issues that cut close to the bone. Polanski handles the material beautifully and the film ends as cleverly as it begins.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Sharply observed, brilliantly performed and wonderfully directed, this four hander reminds us of the amazing power of great writing. Sticking its beak into the lives of two couples, Yazmina Reza's caustic play is neatly adapted for the screen, and given its single setting of a New York apartment, the only 'opening out' required is a long shot of Brooklyn Park. This is where their two youngsters have a brief playground altercation, which leads them to meet and look for an adult way of diffusing the conflict.
As a psychiatrist friend once put it, small triggers, big explosions; human nature is incendiary and our behaviour is barely kept in check by social conventions. We are ruled by the god of carnage, as Alan (Christoph Waltz) points out, during a scene in which that god has seemingly entered the room and rules. This god embodies everything that is destructive and violent about human nature.
The screenplay develops beautifully as layer after layer of civilised behaviour is pared back. The awkward interaction of parents about their boys switches gear to become a hostile interaction of couples about their inner demons and relationship struggles. And it's not just what, but how: the dialogue is strikingly observant as if we were watching a double domestic through a big brother lens in the Cowan residence.
Constantly interrupted by Alan's mobile and his instructions to his legal team about a pharmaceutical client's impending troubles, the tension is rigorously maintained by the combination of direction, camerawork and editing. Yet I am tempted to label the film a dark comedy, given it provides many laugh out loud moments, all triggered by our recognition of the painful truth.
These truths are demonstrated through behaviour, proving that good filmmakers adhere to the golden rule: action is character. Each exchange of dialogue is akin to a duel, where the sharpness of tongue is capable of inflicting severe hurt.
Of course, at first the characters seem calm and rational - until one or other touches a particularly sensitive nerve in another. The clear definition of each character, without resorting to pure stereotype, is one of the film's great strengths.
Engaging, satisfying, funny and dramatic, Carnage is brisk and invigorating - and gives us a chance to reflect on just who is the real person in our own skin.
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CAST: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
PRODUCER: Said Ben Said
DIRECTOR: Roman Polanski
SCRIPT: Roman Polanski, Yasmina Reza (play God of Carnage by Reza)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Pawel Edelman
EDITOR: Herve de Luze
MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Dean Tavoularis
RUNNING TIME: 79 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Sony
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 16, 2011