Few directors are as adept as Roman Polanski at maximising the pervasive, anxiety-filled potential of confined spaces, so locking him in a single location with four of the finest actors around must have seemed like an unbeatable idea. His new film is Carnage, an adaptation of Yasmina Reza's play God of Carnage (the director and playwright have collaborated on the screenplay), and the film takes place almost entirely within the confines of a plush Manhattan apartment. Occasionally, two of the characters will attempt to leave and they may even make it as far as the elevator before being yoked back inside by some unfinished business. As in Sartre's No Exit, the entire cast consists of four characters, here divided into two married couples who have met to discuss a fight between their children, but before long it's the adults themselves who are behaving like kids.
Much of the appeal of Carnage lies in watching four very good actors be at their best while portraying characters who are at their worst. At first, all social niceties and proper etiquette is observed as Penelope and Michael (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly) invite Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) into their home, the latter couple's 11 year-old son having inflicted some damage with a stick in the playground. There's a little awkwardness and embarrassment in the air, but the atmosphere is one of congenial politeness as the two couples agree on a statement and sit down to settle things over a drink and some cake. As Carnage is barely 80 minutes long, however, it doesn't take long for cracks to begin appearing in this façade. The personalities of the four begin to clash, comments take on a more poisonous tone, and each character finds it increasingly difficult to keep their emotions and opinions in check.
Such a progression is entirely predictable. Carnage is a comedy of manners that shows us how awful people's true selves can be when they are no longer bound by the constraints of societal refinement, and how easy it is for those constraints to be shaken off in pressured situations. It's hardly a startling revelation, but Reza's writing displays a consistently sharp edge as she sets up four distinct characters before mercilessly peeling back the layers of their personalities. Very little attempt has been made to open up the play in its translation from stage to screen, but with a master like Polanski in command of the material there is little risk of Carnage feeling too stagebound. He brilliantly utilises the limited amount of space available to him, notably through his unerring use of the four actors within his perfectly composed frames, and the manner in which he allows the film to loosen up as the characters do, with Pawel Edelman's camera lurching drunkenly through the chaotic final third.
As for those actors; well, Carnage is a thespian dream and this cast doesn't disappoint, even if the male half of the ensemble fares much better than their female counterparts. Foster and Winslet are initially highly strung and they both slip rapidly into hysteria, and while it's oddly transfixing to see them explode into such vomit-specked rage, watching Reilly and Waltz work in a more relaxed register is considerably more pleasurable. Reilly is all laid-back, working class bonhomie, and he nails some of Reza's funniest lines ("Well, you certainly perked up since you tossed your cookies," he says following the puking incident) while his encroaching rage is good for a few laughs too. Waltz plays his character with an aloof reserve and a brilliantly dry delivery, getting a laugh every time his attention is drawn to his perpetually ringing Blackberry rather than the trivial arguments the rest of the characters are engaged in.
But while Carnage is a very funny film, which commendably doesn't hold back in its more outlandish moments ("I'm glad our son kicked the shit out of your son and I wipe my ass with your human rights!"), it does feel like rather flimsy material, despite being padded with pointless exterior shots. What exactly is the movie trying to say? Does it in fact have any goal beyond offering audiences a few diverting laughs? If that's all that Reza and Polanski were aiming for, then you have to say Carnage is mission accomplished, but when you get a cast and director of this calibre together, I think it's fair to expect something more than a minor, if enjoyable, diversion.