Roman Polanski may not be known for much else these days other than avoiding a 1977 sexual assault charge, but, with Carnage, the simultaneously revered and maligned director demonstrates his uncanny ability for gradually peeling back all of the layers of humanity in his characters until we see their raw, uncivilized selves. As the crux of the movie, it is fascinating to watch how little time it takes people to turn on one another.
Based on Yasmina Reza's acclaimed 2006 play, Le Dieu du Carnage, Polanski and Reza adapted the material into a screenplay together--though, as with most plays, it is always easy to see that they were originally intended for stage and not screen. Centered in the single location of Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael Longstreet's (John C. Reilly) Brooklyn apartment, the couple summons the parents of their son's classmate, who recently struck him in the face with a stick. Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) are immediately at subtle odds with the Longstreets in terms of lifestyle alone: While Michael sells items such as toilet flushers, Alan is a successful lawyer representing a major pharmaceutical company. And while Penelope works in a bookstore and writes nonfiction pertaining to Africa, Nancy is an investment broker.
With interests, concepts of morality, and social statuses so much different from one another's, it is only a matter of time before each couple's sense of propriety comes undone at the seams. Although the psychosis of this particular fact is beguiling to watch, the main flaw with Carnage is Nancy and Alan's seeming inability to leave the apartment in spite of being utterly disengaged from the business at hand. In this respect Carnage is almost an unwitting remake of Luis Buñuel's 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel.
Perhaps keeping up this pretense of Nancy and Alan's willingness to continue staying in the apartment to argue over myriad topics that will never be resolved is why Carnage is one of Polanski's briefest films, running at a demure 79 minutes long. Still, it is 79 minutes that reveals more about human nature than any two-hour blockbuster.