The setup in Carnage is perfectly civilized: Two well-heeled Brooklyn couples discussing, calmly and rationally, the uncivilized behavior of their 11-year-old sons, one of whom has struck the other with a stick in a public park.
The setup is also perfectly stereotyped: The boy who was hurt has pacifist, liberal, art-loving parents — nonfiction writer Penelope (Jodie Foster) and blue-collar wholesaler Michael (John C. Reilly). The boy who does the hurting springs from the loins of an assertive power couple — investment banker Nancy (Kate Winslet) and corporate lawyer Alan (Christoph Waltz).
The attack is seen from afar, under the opening credits, after which the parents (all played by folks who've either won Oscars or been nominated for them, let's note) take over. That things won't stay civil for long is intimated in the title, so ... let the carnage begin.
The opening scene is made up of quibbles: The one boy approached the other "armed with a stick," writes liberal-writer mom. "Armed"?" murmurs corporate-lawyer dad.
"Carrying a stick" is substituted. Everyone's reasonable. Everyone means well. Coffee and cobbler are served. As someone says at one point, "We're all decent people." If only the kids could get along so well.
Which is what investment-banker mom soon proposes, only to be met with passive resistance from liberal-writer mom. Well, no. Let's be real, here. We're talking Jodie Foster. Make that passive aggression.
"If Zachary hasn't acquired accountability skills," she demurs, "they'll just glare at each other."
"Accountability skills?" bristles the corporate lawyer, and soon there's a mini-explosion.
Aha, you think, so that's where Zachary gets his temper. Maybe he is a maniac, swinging sticks at innocent kids. The thing is, every time you decide you've got a handle on who's what and how that must've influenced the boys, the script throws you a curve.
On Broadway, Yasmina Reza's play was called God of Carnage and was widely regarded as at once efficient — four characters, one set, 90 minutes — and lightweight. It served as an acceptable place to watch stars (initially James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Jeff Daniels and Marcia Gay Harden) behaving badly, at least until you could find a revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? somewhere to pass the time more profitably.
Here, the lightness of Reza's script is heightened by the casting of such powerhouse actors, then amplified by the fact that theatrical unities are still being observed: one plot arc, one locale, one day. On stage, given the exigencies of theatrical production, where sets and additional actors cost money, this minimal approach qualifies as naturalism; on screen it feels artificially constricted. There's a world out there that the camera could show us, and won't.
Still, constriction can be useful. Director Roman Polanski has always been good at ratcheting up pressure with compression — everything happening on a yacht in Knife in the Water, say, or in an apartment in Rosemary's Baby or The Tenant. And since he filmed Carnage shortly after being released from 10 months of house-arrest in Switzerland, it may have seemed second nature to restrict his cast almost entirely to a living room.
But it does mean you're always aware that you're watching filmed theater — a scripted pressure-cooker where playability is being allowed to trump plausibility as theoretically cultivated adults morph into savages — going from civility to carnage in 80 minutes flat.