Carnage Review: What Lies Beneath

On General Release Friday 3rd February
Adapted from the stage play God Of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, Roman Polanski’s film strips away the seemingly polite middle class sensibilities of two couples to reveal furious bile-spitting tempers, hypocrisy, pretension and ugly raging prejudices

Worthy writer Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) and her husband Michael (John C. Reilly) are playing hosts to the Cowans – neurotic investment broker Nancy (Kate Winslet) and high-powered lawyer Alan (Christoph Waltz), a wolfish workaholic who is inseparable from his phone, to discuss an altercation between their sons which resulted in the Longstreet’s son being hit with a stick and losing two teeth.

Aside from a brief outdoor sequence which depicts the boys’ fight, all of the action takes place within the Longstreet’s apartment.  It’s an unbelievably claustrophobic experience – and through its brisk running time (80 minutes), often toe-curlingly excruciating.

Reza and Polanski pay very close attention to language, inflection and tone so while the couples initially argue about the loaded wording of a statement (Nancy objecting to the phrase “armed with a stick” and  the use of the word “disfigure” to describe the aftermath), things quickly descend into sniping personal attacks and an unravelling of middle class pretences.   And when alcohol is introduced, the situation only gets worse.

Carnage’s stage origins are plainly obvious and the one-set production feels much more like a filmed play than a feature film.   That’s not really a problem because the acting is the film’s main attraction particularly from Foster (who gives her best performance in years) and whose world starts to crumble as the situation gets more and more out of control and she realises that even her husband doesn’t share her values.

The problem is that none of the characters feel completely real but merely ciphers for differing personalities – Penelope is politically correct to a fault, Michael is a moral coward with lurking alpha male aggression, Nancy is non-committal and wishy-washy and Alan is selfish, venal and pragmatic.

The film is at its best in the early stages when cracks start to appear in everyone’s apparently civility, but as things descend into farce (a spate of projectile vomiting, some phone abuse, unlikely alliances), the tension dissipates and Carnage loses some of its appeal.  Still, Polanski does manage to keep things refreshingly brief, vicious and pointedly nasty.

Follow Jez Sands on Twitter.