Carnage - Jodie Foster, John C Reilly, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet
Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), Michael Longstreet (John C Reilly), Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) are the modern parents whose reasonableness gives way to rancor © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

A four-character conversation that occurs in a single apartment over nearly 80 continuous minutes of real time probably sounds like an excruciating stage-to-screen bore. But the genius of Carnage is the way the film overcomes those seemingly un-cinematic limitations. Unlikely as it sounds, this is one of the most dynamic, insightful and bitterly funny movies of the year.

The film is adapted from Yasmina Reza’s Olivier Award-winning French play Le Dieu du Carnage that took place in Paris. On Broadway, the setting of the Tony Award-winning English version God of Carnage was shifted to New York, which is where Reza and director/co-writer Roman Polanski set their screenplay. (Although noted screenwriter and playwright Christopher Hampton translated the play for the Broadway stage production, he was not involved with adapting the screenplay for this movie.)

The couldn’t-be-simpler set-up involves two couples discussing a playground altercation between their two offscreen young sons. One boy hit the other in the face with a stick, breaking two teeth. The parents are meeting to commiserate, place blame and seek a method of making amends. What starts out as a strained but entirely civil exchange gradually goes from polite to prickly to outright opprobrious.

Carnage - Kate Winslet
Coolly refined Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet) ends up exploding in more ways than one © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

Jodie Foster and John C Reilly are Penelope and Michael Longstreet, whose well appointed Brooklyn apartment is the movie’s only set. Penelope is an agitated and over-earnest bookstore clerk, Michael an easygoing housewares salesman. Their guests are the more upscale Cowans, parents of the playground perpetrator. Lawyer Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) is rudely preoccupied with numerous cell phone calls during their visit, hashing out the details of a case involving a client’s dangerous blood-pressure drug. Investment broker Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet), perfectly poised in upswept hair and pearls, is initially the most pleasant and diplomatic member of the foursome. But by the time the end credits roll, even she has reason to explode — in more ways than one.

Waltz steals the show as the hilariously sarcastic and provocative Alan, who all but laughs at the idea that his son might show any contrition for his misbehavior. “Our son is a maniac,” he smilingly explains. “If you think he’ll suddenly and spontaneously be apologetic, you’re dreaming!” Talk like that sets off persnickety Penelope, the most patronizingly touchy-feely of the group.

As the genial, slightly goofy and most blue-collar member of the foursome, Reilly’s Michael is an awkward fit. It’s hard not to wish that James Gandolfini, who played the role of Michael onstage, could have brought his Tony Soprano brand of insinuating menace to the part.

Watching reserved civility among strangers deteriorate into insulting verbal hostilities may not sound like a fun night at the movies. But Carnage has a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf way of making uncomfortable social interactions incredibly entertaining. The worse things get, the harder it is to look away.

[Rating: 4 stars]


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.