The fragile twine of banal niceties and white lies holding polite society together frays, then gives way completely, in Carnage, Roman Polanski’s agreeably, then gratuitously, nasty adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play God Of Carnage. As is generally the case in plays about the underlying viciousness of the human condition, it doesn’t take much to make society break down. Here, all it requires is a physical altercation on a schoolyard between a pair of 11-year-old boys to reveal the fault lines in their parents’ troubled marriages and the inherent weaknesses of the stifling, appearance-obsessed world they inhabit.
Jodie Foster leads a strong ensemble as a would-be do-gooder who has channeled her frustrated idealism and professional failures into over-parenting a neurotic son and trying to hold onto the delusion that her husband (John C. Reilly) isn’t the reactionary oaf she fears (or secretly knows) him to be. When upper-middle-class couple Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet stops by to discuss the altercation between their two boys, Foster spies an opportunity for justice for her son, or at the very least, a rare, desperately needed opportunity to be heard by a world she understandably fears does not value her or her concerns.
Waltz hits just the right note of bored, patrician insouciance as a businessman who can barely muster the energy to pretend to care about his son’s misbehavior; jabbering away on a phone about a business deal, he cheerily broadcasts his lack of engagement in the proceedings, which only enrages Foster more. Carnage bristles with tension in its superior first two acts, as conversation about the children’s misbehavior morphs unmistakably into a fevered debate about seemingly everything else. But the intense high spirits turn shrill, and Foster’s performance grows unbearably hysterical in a third act where all the ugly subtext spills messily onto the surface and the central quartet expose their fangs. Polanski wants to rub our collective noses in the ugliest elements of humanity. Yet by the time everyone in Carnage has revealed themselves, we’re left not with flawed human beings, but with monsters of banality whose company represents a brutal form of punishment in itself.