Carnage

(M) Universal/Sony DVD

Carnage strips the veneer off middle-class politeness with acerbic wit.

Sleek professional couple Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christopher Waltz) visit the less affluent but solidly middle class Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly) in the aftermath of a playground brawl involving their respective sons.

Initial polite (if strained) displays of civilised reasonableness gradually degenerate into a savage dance of torment and attack, fuelled by fear and resentment.

Allusions to corrupt big business (in the context of attorney Alan’s machinations) and the horrors of Darfur (on which Penelope’s writing a book) sketch a larger context for the scenes of spiralling social carnage.

Roman Polanski’s adroit direction maintains the tense momentum in this real-time, dialogue-driven piece, based on the play by Yasmina Reza.

The film glitters with black humour — whether it’s accusations of hamster murder or the unsavoury fate of Penelope’s “made with love” fruit cobbler.

If the script occasionally falters, failing to ground some action in credibility (why don’t the Cowans simply leave?), it succeeds in conjuring a palpable sense of the existential hell emerging in the Longstreets’ claustrophobic apartment.

All four players deliver strong performances. Waltz in particular convinces as the cynical cell-phone wielding attorney, while Foster excels as the humourless, liberal culture vulture, seething with quiet rage.

Carnage elegantly evokes important ideas, such as the fragility of kindness in the face of a tribal mentality — whether in the playground, the drawing room or across the globe. But it’s difficult to emotionally engage with these narcissistic characters, who seem to torment themselves as much as each other.

A deliciously quirky moment at the film’s end reminds us that — beyond the peevish self — there’s a wider world awaiting exploration. And it’s full of surprises.

Katrina Samaras

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