DVD Release Date: March 20, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: December 16, 2011 (limited); January 13, 2012 (wider)
Rating: R (for language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 79 min.
Director: Roman Polanski
Actors: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Cristoph Waltz

Meet the Longstreets and the Cowans, two married couples with a shared problem. Their sons have had an altercation, and something must be done to rectify the wrongdoing.

But they’re having trouble assigning blame. Which child was in the wrong? Does one have a tendency toward violent behavior? Can they really know each child’s intent in the events that led up to the fight between the boys?

Roman Polanski’s Carnage, based on Yasmina Reza’s play The God of Carnage, asks what happens when the people trying to work through the situation come to blows themselves. It’s a pointed, sometimes brutal examination of human nature apart from God. Selfishness, defensiveness and fickle social mores all get skewered in this ugly picture of people giving in to their worst suspicions and impulses. Social niceties go down the drain and reveal hostility, suspicion and mistrust at the core of these characters’ hearts.

That may sound like an upsetting experience, but as played by Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly and Cristoph Waltz, the dialogue sparkles and the punches land, sometimes with crackling and comic effect. When the characters deserve the shots—and this petulant quartet is ripe for ridicule insofar as each one thinks he or she is superior to everyone else—there’s a pleasure in seeing the zingers delivered with such gusto.

Things start off politely enough on the surface in the Longstreets’ New York apartment, as the two couples work on a joint statement about the incident between their children. Penelope (Jody Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly) Longstreet smile. They applaud their ability to get to a quick result with Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Al (Christoph Waltz) Cowan about the Longstreet son’s injury at the hands of the Cowans’ male offspring. They don’t want to “[get] caught up in some adversarial” relationship. Better to be among those who “still have a sense of community.”

But the second the Cowans stop taking all of the responsibility for the incident, Penelope goes into overdrive. Before, her son had suffered the loss of two teeth and some nerve damage. Now he becomes a “child with no face left.” Nancy tries to be understanding. Her son certainly realizes the gravity of the situation, she assures Penelope. But Al’s not playing along. “He doesn’t realize how serious it was,” Al explains, bluntly. “He’s 11 years old.”

Nancy tries to be the peacemaker, but her intentions dissolve when confronted with an act she considers cruel: Michael’s admission that he got rid of a child’s hamster by putting it out on the sidewalk. Later she becomes physically ill and vomits, sending Penelope over the edge when the mess covers a beloved and rare art catalog on the Longstreets’ coffee table.

The Cowans try to leave the Longstreets’ abode, but each time they venture out the door, something pulls them back into the apartment, where their conversation continues. Every time they try to move past their differences, new fissures open between the couples.

Al has few words of encouragement and little inclination to apologize for the behavior of his wife, his son or himself. He simply wants to leave the apartment. When events conspire to keep him in the Longstreets’ residence, he spends his time responding to his buzzing cellphone and trying to manage a crisis for a pharmaceutical manufacturer he represents.