Directed by Roman Polanski
No filmmaker sustains the tension of overstayed welcomes and politely endured confinements better than Roman Polanski. It's everywhere in his oeuvre, from Knife in the Water's three's-a-crowd boat trip to Rosemary's Baby's gaslighting-by-satanic cult and The Ghost Writer's surveilled writing retreat. And whereas that other great fan of single-set films, Hitchcock, enjoyed their inherent technical and storytelling challenges (eg. Rope, Lifeboat), Polanski uses forced proximity to pick apart social conventions and wear bourgeois politeness down to raw nerves. Not since Rosemary has the Franco-Polish auteur treated these themes as playfully as he does in Carnage.
Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage, which premiered in 2006 in Zurich—near where Polanski found himself housebound last year—and swept the Tonys after opening on Broadway in 2009, was originally set in Paris, where Carnage was filmed. But Reza and Polanski's screen adaptation, from the American transposition of Christopher Hampton's original English translation, sets the action across the pond in a Brooklyn Heights co-op, where Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) have invited Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), whose son hit their son with a stick. Both sets of parents make a show of wanting to deal with their kids' fight in a civil manner, to show the teenagers how adults resolve conflicts.
Predictably, delectably, snide comments, holier-than-though condescension and corporate lawyer Alan's incessant cell phone interruptions poke and prod the two couples to turn against each other, and then against themselves. Polanski teases us when, on two occasions, the Cowans almost make it into the elevator before being ushered back inside the Longstreets' apartment—near departures that recall Anna's short-lived escape in Haneke's Funny Games—first with promises of coffee, and then because a neighbor has overheard their shouting. They still heed some social conventions even after abandoning others.
As decorum devolves into shouting, sobbing and drunken airings of marital grievances, Reza and Polanski skewer both the hearts-on-their-sleeves liberal Longstreets and their cold yuppie guests. The tight ensemble is excellent, but Foster rises above the rest. After portraying so many stern alpha females in the last two decades, her expansive and unreserved performance delights; she rants, laughs and cries hysterically, reminding of the plucky, persevering kid from Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Carnage comes off as deceptively simple, its increasingly jittery camera movements underlining the claustrophobia of its condensed class warfare. As the credits play over a long shot of a waterfront park, we're as thankful for our freedom as Polanski must have been while shooting this superb farce.
Opens December 16