Sometimes you just look at a film and wonder how on earth it all managed to come together. "Carnage," based on the play "God of Carnage," gathers four of the most accomplished actors working in movies today, situates them in a single apartment set, and just lets them go at it with each other for eighty minutes of biting, dialogue-driven black comedy. The credits reveal that "Carnage," despite being in English and set in New York, is a co-production of several European companies. But then, that makes sense with Roman Polanski in the director's chair. The budget has been reported as $25 million, which seems a little high for a film with only four actors and a few interiors, until you realize the level of the talent involved.
The fun starts with a playground fight between two boys, Zachary and Ethan, which ends in Zachary hitting Ethan in the face with a stick, breaking a few teeth. Zachary's parents, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet) meet with Ethan's parents, Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope (Jodie Foster) at their apartment to talk things out. The conversation starts out civilly enough, but the situation unravels as the couples verbally spar and find more and more reasons to hate each others' guts. "Carnage" is a quick watch, running only eighty minutes, but it seems longer. Time and again the couples try to end the conversation, with Alan and Nancy on the brink of leaving, but they never quite make it to the elevator to escape the apartment. No one wants to keep arguing, but the situation keeps escalating, and small slights become big ones. Alan, a corporate attorney, keeps taking calls from the office. Penelope keeps using loaded language to describe Zachary, insinuating more than she probably should. Nancy has an upset stomach. Michael is terrible at playing peacemaker. No one is really at fault, but there's a lot of blame to go around.
In spite of Polanski's best efforts, "Carnage" always feels more like a stage play than a proper film. I suspect this has a lot to do with the temporal and physical limitations of the whole concept. Aside from the two title sequences, the whole movie takes place in the confines of the apartment. No fancy visuals are offered to provide any distraction. There aren't even any establishing shots to help set the scene, though plenty of background information on the two couples and their lives is offered through the dialogue. The focus is entirely on the actors' performances, and the film's saving grace is that all of them are wonderful. Foster, Waltz, Winslet, and Reilly are extraordinary actors, and it's a lot of fun to see them just let loose and act with each other, without the usual bounds and excesses that come with being in a major motion picture.
The tone of the film borders on farcical and the characters are a little over-the-top, but not so much that a viewer has to suspend much disbelief. It helps that they're all extensions of very recognizable, common personality types. Penelope has built her self-image around being very socially conscious, but she's too stubborn to give an inch on what she feels she's entitled to, and ends up being the least open minded of the four. You may want to throttle Jodie Foster by the end of the movie, and I mean that in a good way. Alan is her polar opposite, who doesn't feel the least bit guilty about being less involved with his family and less morally upright. Waltz reveals some good comedic chops that I hope he gets to bring them out more often. John C. Reilly is essentially playing the usual good-guy schlub, with a few dark edges, but holds his own against the others just fine. As for Kate Winslet, I can't remember the last time she had a role so high energy that lets her be funny to boot.
I do wish that the material had been a little stronger, especially the ending. I don't think it's spoiling much to say that the four characters become less and less civil with each other as time goes on, and the writers get the point across that underneath all the layers of self-delusion and social conditioning, modern man and modern woman are as savage as they always were. However, there is still a distinct lack of resolution, or a final punchline, or anything to give the characters a little closure and drive the final message home. The point where Polanski chose to stop left me hanging, and perhaps that was the intention, but I found myself wanting a little more out of "Carnage" than I think it had to give.
I suspect this version of "Carnage" may have worked better as a traditional stage production, but to see these four actors together, all at the top of their game, I'll take what I can get.