When two grade-school boys get into a fight in the park that results in one boy, Zachary Cowan, hitting the other, Ethan Longstreet, in the face with a stick, their parents meet in a Brooklyn apartment to discuss the matter. Zachary's parents, Alan (Christoph Waltz) and Nancy Cowan (Kate Winslet), visit the home of Michael (John C. Reilly) and Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster), Ethan's parents. Their meeting is initially intended to be short, but due to various circumstances, the conversation continues to draw out. In fact, Alan and Nancy begin to leave the apartment on two occasions, but are drawn back in to further discussion.
At first, the couples are friendly to each other, but their respective comments start to hurt feelings, making everyone argue with one another. Apart from fighting among themselves, the couples blame each other about who is responsible for the fight between their sons. Nancy calls the Longstreets "superficially fair-minded" and Penelope and Michael complain about Alan's arrogant and dull attitude. Everyone also gets irritated with Alan when he accepts endless business phone calls on his BlackBerry, interrupting the discussion, and showing he has more interest in his business problems than the matter at hand. Michael also receives many phone calls from his ailing mother, to his frustration.
Nancy accuses Michael of being a murderer because he, annoyed by the constant noise it made during the night, had earlier turned his daughter Courtney's pet hamster loose in the street. Penelope becomes emotional about the hamster and with everyone arguing with each other. Other issues include a risky drug Alan is working to defend and Michael's mother has been prescribed, and the question of idealism and responsibility that is part of Penelope's current work.
Michael offers everyone a glass of fine scotch. Penelope claims she doesn't "get drunk" and Nancy drinks way too many and finally stops Alan's phone calls by dropping his cellphone in Penelope's flower vase full of tulips and water. Penelope and Nancy both laugh uproariously while Michael and Alan try to blow-dry the BlackBerry.
The conversation continues to decay into personal attacks and opinionated statements and, eventually, epithets are uttered (?). Penelope is ranting, calling Nancy's son a 'snitch', and Nancy's true colors are revealed when she destroys the tulips and drunkenly and vulgarly states she is glad that her son beat up Penelope's and Michael's son. The couples realize the conversation is going nowhere. Alan's BlackBerry, lying on the coffee table, vibrates, and all four stare at it.
The film cuts to the hamster, alive and well in the park, where Ethan and Zachary are reconciling on their own.Jodie Foster as Penelope Longstreet
John C. Reilly as Michael Longstreet
Kate Winslet as Nancy Cowan
Christoph Waltz as Alan Cowan
Elvis Polanski as Zachary Cowan
Eliot Berger as Ethan Longstreet
Roman Polanski as a neighbor (uncredited cameo)
Although set in Brooklyn, New York, the film was shot in Paris, because of Polanski's fugitive status. The opening and closing scenes, ostensibly filmed in Brooklyn Bridge Park, were shot in France against a green screen. Polanski's son Elvis, seen only in long shots in the opening and closing scenes, portrays the Cowans' son. Actress Julie Adams (famous for Creature from the Black Lagoon) voices Alan Cowan's secretary on the phone, and was a dialect coach for Waltz.
The apartment, in which almost the whole film takes place, was designed in a sound studio on the outskirts of Paris. Production designer Dean Tavoularis placed a priority on making the set look authentically American, having numerous products and appliances shipped from the U.S., and going to the trouble of spending tens of thousands of dollars to rent locks and hinges that look American rather than European.
The film premiered at the 68th Venice International Film Festival. The film was released in the United States on 16 December 2011 by Sony Pictures Classics.
Carnage received generally positive reviews from critics. It holds a 72% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which notes that "it isn't as compelling on the screen as it was on the stage, but Carnage makes up for its flaws with Polanski's smooth direction and assured performances from Winslet and Foster." On Metacritic, which uses an average of the critics' reviews, the film holds a 61/100, indicating "Generally favorable reviews".
John Anderson of Newsday compared the film to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and said: "The astonishing Waltz steals the picture, possibly because he's the one with a rational perspective (despite his telephonic obsessiveness). He sees the whole exercise as pointless. Ultimately, so do we." Giuseppe Sedia of the Krakow Post remarked that the descent of four adults to a thuggish level has been featured as well in Polanski's short film Rozbijemy zabawę. He added that "it is interesting to speculate on what Hitchcock might have made of Reza's oeuvre".
Shot on a budget of $25 million, Carnage grossed $2.5 million at the U.S. box office after twenty weeks in theaters, with another $25 million in foreign countries, for a worldwide gross of $27,603,069.
Golden Globe Awards
Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy - Jodie Foster (nominee)
Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy - Kate Winslet (nominee)
Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture - Kate Winslet (nominee)
Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture - Christoph Waltz (nominee)
European Film Awards
Best Actress - Kate Winslet (nominee)
Best Screenwriter - Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza (nominee)
Best European Film - Roman Polanski (nominee)
Best Writing – Adaptation - Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza (nominee)
Cinema Writers of Spain
Best Adapted Screenplay - Roman Polanski, Yasmina Reza (nominee)
Boston Society of Film Critics
Best Ensemble Cast - Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly
San Diego Film Critics Society Awards
Best Ensemble Performance - Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly (nominee)
68th Venice International Film Festival
Nominated - Golden Lion
Won - Little Golden Lion