This comic miniature, where the suburban sitcom flirts with the bleak films of Michael Haneke, sees Roman Polanski bring his knack for claustrophobic dramas played out in enclosed spaces (a recurring interest from Knife in the Water to The Ghost, via Repulsion and The Tenant) to French writer Yasmina Reza’s play The God of Carnage, moving the action from bourgeois Paris to middle-class Brooklyn.
It’s a captive, caustic exercise in confinement and hysteria as a couple, Nancy (Kate Winslet), a personality-free, high-flying financial type, and Alan (Christoph Waltz), a harried executive, come knocking at the home of Penelope (Jodie Foster), a self-consciously liberal writer, and Michael (John C Reilly), an amiable peddler of ‘flush mechanisms’, to discuss a fight between their kids. Each couple attempts diplomacy, but words become weapons, prejudices rise to the surface and the evening collapses into a storm of anger, vomit, drunkenness and violence.
It’s an acting face-off, yet Polanski harnesses any thespian one-upmanship to make it integral to each character’s need to dominate a deteriorating scenario. Each of our four victims – and Reza and Polanski are unforgiving – enacts a primal power dance around the apartment.
The film threatens to run away with itself: the third act feels accelerated and mannered compared to more sly gear changes earlier on. Yet Waltz steals the show with a crowd-pleasing embrace of his character’s weasel wit and amoral attitudes. He has one of the best lines, too, when he half-smiles at Foster, who is forever beating a progressive drum, and quips: ‘I saw your friend Jane Fonda on TV the other day.’ Brief, brutal and barmy.