Two young boys have a small fight in a park –as all kids do. The child who is being ganged up on picks up a fallen tree branch and uses it to hit the other one in the face. The parents of both kids meet up to hash out the details of what happened.
These two sentences pretty much sum up both the plot and set-up of Carnage, Roman Polanski’s new film adapted from Yazmina Reza’s stage play God of Carnage. The remainder of the movie looks to be quite a faithful recreation of the play. All four characters are played by acclaimed actors: Christophe Waltz and Kate Winslet are a wealthy uptown lawyer and his snobby wife while Jodie Foster and John C Reilly play an aspiring genocide historian and her blue-collar salesman husband.
Between the prisms of their differing politics, the four of them thoroughly dissect their sons’ actions: in turns placating, apologising and accusing each other. At its core, Carnage wants to be a treatise on the inherently violent nature of humans, with Foster’s character demanding justice for her son’s treatment while Waltz’s corporate lawyer counters that boys will be boys and that violence is an aspect of human nature that can never be eradicated. However, this is all merely subtext for a living-room comedy that sees every character’s civility break down over an afternoon of cobbler, coffee and distracting phone calls.
It’s a very funny and erudite movie, something that a domesticated Woody Allen might have written in the 80s. It gleefully mixes up scenes of passive aggressive snarkery with one of the more unexpected liquid expulsion scenes ever seen on film. The cast are all very funny and have a great chemistry together. It may seem like a back-handed compliment (and it is intended as one) to be but we can’t help but feel that Carnage is a bit too well cast on the whole. While Jodie Foster is an absolute stand-out playing a neurotic, mollycoddling mother (completely unlike all the characters she has played before), her co-stars Reilly, Waltz and Winslet are playing very close to type. They are all very good, but Foster is the only one that seems to be having real fun with the part.
Polanski’s camera is not particularly showy, allowing the stars to really make the most of Reza’s dialogue. While the visual style is not distracting and the script is very funny, Carnage is also inescapably theatrical. Did it need to become a film? Probably not. But it’s tough to not like a film this thoughtful, funny and solidly performed.