Playwright Yasmina Reza adapts her own celebrated work for the big screen, entrusting her incendiary dialogue to a stellar cast including three former Oscar winners, who deliver each verbal grenade with lip-smacking relish.
It’s an acting tour-de-force, the tension heightened by the claustrophobic setting of a swish Brooklyn apartment overlooking the park, where an act of aggression between two children provides the dramatic spark for the hostility.
Polanski works closely with cinematographer Pawel Edelman to move the argument around the enclosed space, shooting from different angles to draw imaginary battle lines between the couples as they vie for supremacy.
Yet the piece’s origins are unmistakable and Reza’s comical coup de theatre - a character projectile vomiting across the stage when a piece of homemade cobbler unsettles her stomach - doesn’t have quite the same impact when we’re protected from spatter by the cinematic fourth wall.
Alan Cowan (Christoph Waltz) and his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet) visit the apartment of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C Reilly, Jodie Foster) to apologise for their son Zachary, who has hit the Longstreets’ son Ethan in the face with a stick.
As a result, poor Ethan has two broken incisors, nerve damage and swelling to his upper lip.
The meeting is intended to be brief and courteous and Alan tries to speed along proceedings by candidly and brusquely admitting, “Our son is a maniac. If you hope he’ll suddenly and spontaneously get all apologetic, you’re dreaming.”
As the conversation ebbs and flows, tensions become evident until poor Nancy is taken ill and spoils Penelope’s prized Kokoschka art catalogue.
The Cowans head for the bathroom to clean up while the Longstreets seethe.
“Their son is a threat to homeland security!” shrieks Penelope, barely able to contain her middle-class fury.
Once the guests return to the sitting room, verbal exchanges become increasingly terse and heated until all sense of decorum disintegrates and the couples lash out just like their boys.
Carnage lives up to its title, decimating the characters’ facades of politeness and charm as collective tempers fray.
Waltz is thoroughly obnoxious as the corporate lawyer, who is constantly rude to his hosts by taking urgent calls on his mobile phone, while Winslet degenerates from simpering peacemaker into cackling harpy.
Foster and Reilly are equally strong, turning on each other about the sensitive issue of their nine-year-old daughter’s pet hamster.
Polanski allows the machine-gun dialogue to dictate the rhythm of the film. The camerawork and editing becoming increasingly frenetic as everyone competes for the delicious last word.
By Damon Smith
:: SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 7.5/10
Released: February 3 (UK & Ireland), 79 mins