"We're all decent people, all four of us." Michael Longstreet (John C. Reilly) says to his wife and their two new friends in Roman Polanski's Carnage, which had its world premiere on Thursday at the Venice Film Festival. At that moment, viewers know they're being fed an unintended-irony pill. It doesn't take a sybil to predict that, in this faithful and fastidious movie version of Yasmina Reza's 2006 play God of Carnage, decency will be the first casualty. Anyone can sense that the trajectory in this comic of discomfort is a toboggan ride to social anarchy. The only suspense is in how the vehicle will crash and which of the four principals will survive the ride.
Michael and his wife Penelope (Jodie Foster) have brought the Cowans, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy (Kate Winslet), to their Brooklyn apartment to discuss an incident in which the Cowans' young son whacked the Longstreets' boy with a stick. All want to resolve the dispute civilly, by talking it out without the boys present. But trap four people in a tight space, let minor animosities fester, add too much liquor and watch the venom fly. Spousal comity disappears, parental protectiveness turns to hatred of children, long-suppressed resentments flare up between and within the couples, and a cell phone and a purse will become guided missiles of revenge. Carnage is a marital-arts action film with words as the weapons of domestic destruction.
God of Carnage sailed through many successful runs: in Paris (where Foster's character was played by Isabelle Huppert), in London (where it won the Olivier award for best new comedy and Ralph Fiennes took on the Alan role) and on Broadway (for a Tony-winning run with James Gandolfini and Marcia Gay Harden as the host couple and Jeff Daniels and Hope Davis as the visitors). Theater audiences must have enjoyed the way Reza tantalized and taunted them by providing funhouse-mirror images of themselves on stage. And the question of why the Cowans never leave having pretty much settled the dispute in the first 20 minutes, and edging out the door three times was answered by the implicit restriction of a one-set play: If they go, it's over. Any theater piece traps the audience with the characters; for the ticketholders, it's voluntary confinement.
Most movies have wanderlust; they're antsy to go places. But Polanski, across a peripatetic career that now spans a half-century, has always been fascinated by the drama of people imprisoned in an apartment: Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, Polanski himself in The Tenant. His sardonic world view, impressed on him as an orphan boy dodging the Nazis, sees through the veneer of good manners to the animal inside. Working here in miniature, he finds the collapse of civilization in Foster's forced smile, ready to crack like dime-store pottery, and the first burst of revolution in the Alien-like moment when Nancy, sick with nerves and perhaps on her hosts' apple cobbler, violently vomits onto Penelope's treasured old book of Kokoschka paintings.
Reza's diagram of devolution might be made for Polanski if its satire weren't so timid. Dramatic logic might at least require that by the end the two men are fighting, as their sons had. But Carnage only skates on the surface of such de-profundis dramas as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, or virtually any play by Harold Pinter, or The Lord of the Flies. For the ultimate satire of decivilization, see Luis Buñuel's 1963 film The Exterminating Angel, in which guests at a posh dinner party find they can't leave, anarchy slowly ensues, one couple commits suicide and sheep wander in to be slaughtered and cooked for food. How's that for a last supper?
Reza isn't up to such grand misanthropy. Nor does she have the skill to trace a plausible course from the human to the beastly. Michael, the most amiable of the four, suddenly reveals that he threw out his daughter's pet hamster; apparently he'd never told Penelope that he just hates hamsters. Alan keeps getting cell-phone calls about a fast-developing crisis in his business but he'd rather stick around and argue with his wife and the Longstreets. And if the four main characters are meant to personify the decline of Western civ, Polanski's one significant addition to the play undercuts that dour generalization. SPOILER ALERT: In a coda, back outside, the two boys are getting along fine, and so is the hamster. All is serene in the world of animals and preadolescents; it's the four adults who have created their own hell.
At 78, Polanski has earned the right to pursue his career-long demons of confinement and anarchy even in a minor film like this. But Carnage is not the word for what he's perpetrated here. Minor irritation is more like it.