Two couples agree to meet and sort through the issues surrounding a fight between their two sons.
It begins cordially enough but soon adult conversation gives way to point scoring and the language of the playground.
Carnage boasts a cast to die for in Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christophe Waltz and John C Reilly. Roman Polanski is behind the camera and co-scripts with Yasmina Reza, who wrote the original stage play (Le Dieu de Carnage) on which this movie is based.
And, crucially, Polanski retains so much of the intense theatricality that made Reza’s play such an exhilarating experience. This is claustrophobic stuff with shades of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as four frightfully middle-class people find their shared veneer of respectability striped away.
Nancy and Alan Cowan (Winslet and Waltz) visit Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Foster and Reilly) after their son, best friend of the Longstreets’ boy, hits him with a stick and damages a tooth. Kids will be kids, one assumes. But Penelope (brittle and pretentious) intends to rake over the evidence and damn the Cowans for their boy’s casual violence.
The Cowans, meanwhile, struggle with the artificiality of the circumstances. Alan (remote and humourless) is glued to his mobile phone. Nancy (open and defensive) finds herself responding negatively to Penelope and her obsession with apportioning blame. Only Michael (blithe and amiable) seeks the middle ground before succumbing to an apocalyptic meltdown.
Carnage is a film about regression. Despite their best intentions no-one in the film has ever truly left the kindergarten and whatever character they were at seven they have carried into adulthood, honing, evolving and growing their character defects and prejudices.
It’s a magnificently realised portrait of narrow-minded people forced to conform to society’s rigid mores, believing they are better than they are and deluded enough to expect others to play their game.
Equally hilarious, cringe-making and deeply unsettling, Carnage enjoys exquisite ensemble playing from its star quartet and throws up a memorable scene in which Winslet deposits the contents of her stomach all over one of Foster’s ostentatious art books.