Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet in CARNAGE (Guy Ferrandis/Sony Pictures Classics)

Directed by Roman Polanski
Produced by Saïd Ben Saïd
Written by Yasmina Rexa & Polanski, based on the play God of Carnage by Reza
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
France/Germany/Poland/Spain. 80 min. Rated R
With Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz & John C. Reilly

In Carnage, the pursuit of normal behavior results in 79 jittery minutes of abject abnormality in the confines of a Brooklyn apartment. Directed by Roman Polanski, this piercingly funny and deliberately unpleasant comedy is the adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s biting play God of Carnage, and it loses none of its immediacy and stage-like quality on screen. The film is stocked with an ensemble that’s compelling before the first spoken word. Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz play a busy power couple, Nancy and Alan Cowan, who make an afternoon visit to Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) to discuss a playground altercation between their two sons.

As these things tend to go, the couples’ initial interactions are strenuously polite and tightly corseted by social convention. They simply need to agree on the wording of a letter describing how the Cowans’ son hit the Longstreets’ son in the face with a stick. Penelope revels in her ability to discuss the issue cordially, without (outwardly) blaming the Cowans for their child’s misdeeds, hoping that their shame and apologies need no encouragement. But clearly they do. Whenever Allan Cowan isn’t stepping away to very audibly take his neverending work calls, he’s either blithely uninterested or even amused by his son’s behavior (Waltz’s performance brims with hilarity). As Penelope begins to sense this roadblock to a civilized reconciliation, her mature demeanor—which she makes every effort to highlight—gives way to a seething passive aggression and a full-blown emotional collapse. The other three aren’t far behind, especially when a bottle of scotch (on very empty stomachs ) enters the equation.

As the characters begin to exchange insults and scathing analyses of one another, the swift devolution from civility to chaos can, at times, stretch credulity, and you can’t help but feel that any person in his right mind would have already extricated himself from the situation. But the exaggeration is purposeful, and the performers are more than up to the challenge of infusing reality with absurdity and vice versa.

There are moments when venom, hurled to and from each of the characters at one point or another, unexpectedly bind two of the four in an alliance—maybe the men against the women—but the corrosive invective dissolves those bonds just as quickly as they form. The quartet enters a sort of free-fall from their socially circumscribed interaction, plummeting to nothing short of hysteria. In the context of polite, Western, middle-aged, moneyed Brooklyn adults living in beautifully furnished apartments, their behavior seems no less transgressive than if they were to take off their clothes and run naked through the streets.