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Photo credit: Wikipedia

The premise of this movie is simple: two sets of parents meet to discuss a fight their sons had at school which resulted in one of the boys having two of his teeth knocked out. Their conversation starts out in a civil and respectful way, but as the couples spend an afternoon together, their masks of social propriety gradually slip away until they are screaming at one another all the things that people never say in the way people never say them.

Based on the play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza, (a play originally written in French, then translated to English with slight adaptations for American audiences), the film has a theatrical feel. Although I have not seen the stage version, it was easy to imagine how this would look onstage. The eighty-minute movie took place almost entirely in one of the couple’s apartments. The action rested solely on the interactions, dialogue, and the subtle and blatant use and abuse of social mores among these four people. It’s an unusual format for a film, one that works better in a live theater setting. Although the fact that it’s onscreen means that the film may not pack as much punch as a play that involves the audience in the action, the four brilliant actors in the movie version infuse the film with the life and candor of a play.

Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play Nancy and Alan Cowan, whose son, Zachary, has had a violent argument with Ethan, Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael(John C. Reilly)’s son. In their first meeting, the couples get together in Penelope and Michael’s New York high-rise apartment to discuss the situation in a mature manner, deciding the best ways to get the children to reconcile. In what initially looks as though it will be a fifteen-minute discussion, the parents maintain polite conversation marked with lightly veiled tension interlaced with each parent’s wish to do what is right. When the mood in the discussion gets more taut as Penelope blames the Cowans’ son more openly, Michael attempts to smooth things over by continuing the conversation over cobbler and coffee. However, the dialogue becomes increasingly aggressive and accusatory, as all semblance of politeness falls away. The absurdity of the parents’ fight while attempting to reconcile their children’s conflict is marked by painfully funny moments, such as Nancy’s nervous vomiting all over Penelope’s prized coffee table books. By the script’s climax, the couples have turned on one another so completely that the story deserves its title, drawn from one of Alan’s lines about serving a “god of carnage,” where people do and say exactly what is in their most basic instinct to do and say.

The quartet has some good chemistry and banter; I’m sure they all had fun playing such cathartic roles. Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet are both acting powerhouses who commit wholeheartedly to any role they play, and this is no exception. John C. Reilly embodies the every-man here with a sense of understated rebellion against the mundane role he’s relegated to as husband and father. Christoff Walz plays the self-important lawyer who continually leaves the conversation to take calls on his cell phone. Despite his rude behavior, he at least holds the distinction of the four by being the one who is most honest and up-front about recognizing the facades we put on to appease societal expectations.

Watching this movie left me cringing by the end. I imagine that watching all this play out onstage, with the audience’s laughter and cheering, would offer a sense of relief to all the screaming, but in a film setting with no collective audience response, the scenario falls more on the side of painful than comical. Even so, with four great dramatic talents at work, it’s hard to look away.

My rating: Good (3 of 4 stars)

Quick facts: Carnage, 2011; R rating with a running time of 80 minutes; directed by Roman Polanski; Sony Pictures Classic (United States release)/ StudioCanal (United Kingdom)

Sources: Photo insert: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carnage_film_poster.jpg
Movie info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1692486/