In terms of dialogue and plotting, the film is nearly identical to the American translation of Reza’s play, which was produced this past spring at the Goodman Theatre. The simple premise has two upper-class couples meeting to discuss a fight between their sons, which resulted in one of the boys getting some teeth knocked out. The victim’s parents are avowed liberals, while the aggressor’s are world-beating cynics: diplomacy gives way to bickering, outbursts, and finally drunken resignation, much of which is very funny to watch (though a Los Angeles Times profile of Reza and Christopher Hampton, who first translated God of Carnage into English, notes that the original Paris production was more somber than the version that Hampton prepared, a reminder that tragedy and farce are often flip sides of the same coin).
The play is a tidy little model for the decay of civilization, if you’d like to see it that way—and Reza provides numerous invitations for the viewer to do just that. There are allusions to the genocide in Darfur, jokes about the futility of trying to prevent violence, and, most importantly, the line that gives the play its title. “I believe in a god of carnage,” says Alan, the most amoral member of the quartet, “that has ruled the world since time immemorial.” While this character is hardly a mouthpiece for Reza, these sentiments hint at her historical perspective.
In his capsule review, J.R. Jones described Reza’s writing as diagrammatic, and I wouldn’t disagree. In fact, one of my favorite aspects of the Chicago production was how Rick Snyder’s staging built upon this very quality. Emphasizing the high ceiling of the Goodman’s main stage while strictly defining the actual playing space, Snyder made Reza’s characters appear as pawns in some cosmic chess game (that’s how they looked to me, anyway; my seat was in the balcony). This approach brought out the humor of the piece, and the production only became funnier as it went along.
Polanski, of course, is no stranger to carnage: born in Poland in 1935, some of his earliest memories are of hiding from the Nazis, and many of his relatives, including his mother, were killed in concentration camps. This would explain why Polanski’s films lack any kind of spiritual orientation (even though their cultural sensibility is unmistakably Jewish). It would also explain why no filmmaker conveys paranoia more authentically—and less hysterically—than he does: for Polanski, paranoia more or less suffices for faith. All of his films feel haunted by memories of the Holocaust; it seems like no coincidence that he cast Waltz (best known to movie audiences for playing a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds) as Carnage’s voice of amorality.
Polanski’s most significant contribution as a director, then, is to temper Reza’s cosmic perspective with something like its opposite. He’s not interested in the violence that gods impart to humanity, but rather the violence that's just beyond one’s field of vision (with Polanski, the sense of confinement always cuts two ways). Ultimately, his concerns dovetail quite nicely with Reza’s. Both seem to find delicious irony in discussions of violence as an abstract concept.