Based on Yasmina Reza’s stage play The God of Carnage, Polanski’s production relocates the action from France to Brooklyn (with Paris ironically used as a stand-in due to the director’s fugitive status in the US), albeit confined to an upper middle-class couple’s compact apartment. The film opens with a group of boys turning on a playmate, who then proceeds to strike the ringleader with a large branch.
We then jump to the aforementioned apartment, where the two boys’ parents – the Cowans (Winslet, Waltz) and Longstreets (Foster, Reilly) – are typing up a letter explaining the events, with the aim of settling matters in a civilised, dignified manner. However, as the afternoon draws on – and the Cowans somehow fail to escape – the couples begin to turn on each other and their respective spouse.
Following on from his politically-edged 2010 thriller The Ghost, with Carnage Polanski strips down his approach to filmmaking, perfectly capturing the claustrophobic, uncomfortable atmosphere of Reza’s original play on the big screen. The ageing, controversial director has seemingly lost little of his confrontational edge, loading the script with satirical digs at the US politics (Reilly’s Michael reveals that his wife dressed him up “like a liberal”, before dropping a racial slur), the pharmaceutical industry (through a wonderful performance from a smirking, aloof Waltz) and middle-class banality, punctuated by drunken outbursts and a spate of projectile vomiting courtesy of the SAG Award-winning Winslet and a suspect apple-pear cobbler.
Alongside Jason Reitman’s Young Adult (also released this week, review here), Carnage is one of the first great comedies of 2012, delivering an almost unparallelled laugh-per-minute ratio during its short 78 minute run time. Smart, dark, uncomfortable yet somehow endlessly watchable (even if you are peeking through your fingers), Polanski has succeeded in transferring the raw bile of Reza’s source play from stage to screen.