Roman Polanski adapts Yasmina Reza's acclaimed play God of Carnage for his latest feature film, throwing four A-list stars together into the same room and cranking up the hysteria as they duke it out in the aftermath of a playground altercation between their two children.
It begins serenely enough, with Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) inviting Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) into their home to resolve a dispute that left the formers' son with nasty facial injuries. Polanski bookends the film with an exterior shot of the scene of the violent crime, yet inbetween the action is confined mainly to the four walls of a New York high rise.
The temperature quickly rises as civilised facades fall away amid talk of hamster mistreatment, leftover peach cobbler and projectile vomiting. In the end, you're left wondering who's more childish: the parents or the quarrelling boys whose clash led them to meet.
Foster's neurotic Penelope is eager to drive the conflict resolution but finds husband Michael's all-too-laid-back approach frustrating. The fuse is lit over the word "armed", then again later when Michael reveals his dislike for the family pet hamster and how he released it into the wild. For Nancy this is a head-scratcher, yet Waltz's hotshot PR man cares little as he's tethered to his BlackBerry in animated conversation with the unseen Walter.
Actions provoke big reactions, so when Nancy's cobbler makes an unwelcome return all over one of Nancy's art books things truly start to unravel. Michael cracking open his 18-year-old whisky fails to quash the tension, and the verbal abuse continues as sobriety becomes a distant memory. The cast expertly volley insults back and forth like tennis pros engaged in the middle of a high-speed rally. The nature of victim and bully is explored in these heated exchanges, before the debate becomes less about their children and more to do with the thinly-masked contempt they have for each other.
In terms of the performances, Waltz takes on a loose approximation of his Inglourious Basterds character Hans Landa, viciously attacking his cobbler and snorting his way rudely through phone conversations. Both Penelope and Nancy keep tempers in check for as long as they can, while Reilly's cheery demeanour masks someone deeply unhappy in his marriage.
Polanski smartly directs his camera into all angles of the set, helping to overcome the inherent staginess of the conceit. Carnage may have a slender running time, but it's a clever, immensely watchable character piece that's a fine showcase for its stars.