Stage-to-screen transitions have yielded some classic films in the past, including ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1951) and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ (1966), teaming big stars with high-profile directors. It's in this tradition that Roman Polanski presents his adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s acclaimed play ‘God of Carnage’, featuring a compact cast of four of the most interesting actors working today. The result, ‘Carnage’, is the kind of cinematic boxing match that occurs when you put the best talent you can get in a room and let them run loose.
Zachary Cowen has smacked Ethan Longstreet in the face with a stick while they are playing in the local playground. His parents, Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) are meeting Ethan’s parents, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) at their Brooklyn apartment to discuss the matter. While the Longstreets play the gracious hosts, Nancy awkwardly navigates cordial conversation while Alan is glued to his phone dealing with legal problems from his pharmaceutical clients. However, as the morning progresses, good manners begin to slip, and with blame and accusations flying everywhere, chaos (and carnage) begin to take over.
Rather than working from Christopher Hampton’s stage translation, Polanski and Reza return to the original French play for the screenplay, and Polanski’s approach is moulded very closely to the story's stage roots. Instead of opening up the narrative to multiple locations (apart from a silent prologue and epilogue), he wisely keeps the action in the one location - the homely but strangely neat Longstreet apartment. His cinematic approach is beautifully simple; the camera mirroring the tensions building between the two couples. We are always aware of the small space we're in, and the impossibility of escape. We are observers to this mini territorial battle, often watching from mirror reflections or skewed angles. Chances are, most people won’t notice Polanski’s subtle work on this film, and it certainly deserves attention.
The big drawcard of ‘Carnage’ though, is its cast. All four of these terrific actors are at the top of their game. Firstly, you have Christoph Waltz as the maniacal Alan Cowan. In a wicked way, he acts as the ringleader of this little battle, poking and prodding for his own enjoyment. John C. Reilly as Michael is the everyman antithesis to Alan’s ruthless lawyer, using his physicality and masculinity as his weapon of choice. Jodie Foster as Penelope is a complete left-hand turn for her career, casting off the tough everywoman image for this mousy, neurotic, highly-strung intellectual on a never-ending crusade for moral justice. Trapped in the middle is Kate Winslet as Nancy, who once again asserts herself as one of the best actors of today, with a quiet and polite fury that, as the film reaches its climax, literally (and I mean, literally) bursts out of her. It's worth the price of the ticket alone just to watch these four actors, clearly having the time of their lives and demonstrating impressive comic chops you probably weren’t aware they had.
The big drawcard of ‘Carnage’ though, is its cast. All four of these terrific actors are at the top of their game.
If there is one place ‘Carnage’ fumbles, it is in the content itself. At 79 minutes, it’s a swift film, but there are times where the discussions about Ethan and Zachary’s altercation can go around in circles. There is only to much you can say on the subject, and Reza pushes it to the limits of being interesting. Polanski seems to be aware of this though, and often finds a way to keep the film moving forward. The single setting never gets tedious, and as the chaos continues to build, the film gets progressively more funny. It wears its stage origins on its sleeve - but in all the right ways, with cracking pace, some terrific one-liners, and a clarity and focus most big-budget filmmaking sadly lacks. Intelligently written, expertly directed, beautifully performed and infinitely silly, ‘Carnage’ is a little gem of a film that, if anything, will leave you entertainingly satisfied.