It's a dog-eat-dog world in "Carnage," Roman Polanski's film about a playground brawl between two boys that mutates into a psychological knock-down between two sets of parents.
In one corner are Penelope (Jodie Foster), a high-minded liberal writer, and her husband, Michael (John C. Reilly), a seemingly easygoing housewares wholesaler. In the other are Nancy (Kate Winslet), a high-strung investment broker, and Alan (Christoph Waltz), a corporate lawyer noisily preoccupied with taking his clients' cellphone calls.
In the course of Polanski's 80-minute film, adapted from the international hit, 90-minute play "God of Carnage" by Iranian French author Yasmina Reza, the couples lapse from strained politeness into bitter accusations, with shocking and comic results. Among the greatest pleasures is watching Reilly's and Waltz's characters match wits, exchange manly taunts, and eventually bond over Scotch, cigars and their similar marital problems — all while passing the roles of top-dog and underdog back and forth like a baton.
"They're kind of naturally competitive with each other, until they get to know each other, until they understand their place in the pecking order," Reilly said recently while breakfasting with Waltz at a Beverly Hills restaurant. "Like, 'OK, you like to be the alpha male, and I'm OK being the beta male with you. But sometimes I like to be the alpha male!' Like these little silent negotiations going on."
The Austrian-German Waltz, best-known to U.S. audiences as the suavely sinister Nazi Col. Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," concurred. "It's all jostling for social position. It's like a tribe of baboons. They work exactly in the same way. It's social wrestling in a way."
The dueling verbal duets between the two men, their wives and various combinations thereof illustrate the broad themes that the movie dissects with razor strokes. An unflinching depiction of Homo sapien power relations, "Carnage" explores the paper-thin fragility of civilized behavior and the way people switch identities and personas to match shifting social situations.
"At the beginning of the story, they're all holding up masks to each other," said Reilly, whose on-screen masks have included those of a porn star in "Boogie Nights" (1997), a fall-guy husband in "Chicago" (2002) and the father of a budding psychopath in this year's "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
"And then there's this moment where they all start to be more honest about who they are," Reilly went on. "But then I realized they're holding the masks to themselves."
Speaking by phone from her Paris home, playwright Reza praised the film's cast, which Polanski hand-picked. Many fine actors had performed in productions of the play in New York, Paris and London, including Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, Janet McTeer and Marcia Gay Harden, Reza noted.
But, she said, "when I knew that the cast was this one, I was really very confident and happy with it. … They were so right in each part."
The actors sometimes wondered why Polanski had chosen them specifically. Toward the end of filming, they figured it out. "Some part of our personality was revealed, and it was a less flattering part of our personality that Roman somehow saw, in all four of us," Reilly said. "This part of ourselves that we weren't maybe ready to admit."
As the drama unfolds, the foursome of actors creates tension and subtle humor, harmony and dissonance, out of its struggles, as if performing a complex piece of music.
"It really is like a string quartet," Waltz observed. "In a string quartet, the first violin plays sort of the theme. But then the second violin gets into the act and hands it over to the other, and the composer kind of develops all these shifts and turns. And then maybe in the second movement it's only the cello."
Of course, it requires an exceptional conductor to orchestrate such a piece. Polanski, a keen student of human nature under duress, connoisseur of dark comedy and master at maneuvering his camera within tight psychological spaces, had a résumé tailored to the job requirements. He also happens to be a longtime friend of Reza's.
Nonetheless, Reilly said, "it was a really gutsy movie for Roman to make."
"If he stopped making movies tomorrow, he would have a string of masterpieces to call his own," the actor said. "It took a lot of trust in us too, at 78, to pick a movie that you can't cut, you can't change the order of the scenes. It's a real-time story. It was a bold risk and an enthusiastic embrace of staying vital as a filmmaker."
Nearly the entire action takes place inside Penelope and Michael's middle-class home. Shooting in France, Polanski, who for legal reasons cannot travel to the U.S., had his crew and production designer Dean Tavoularis construct a facsimile Brooklyn apartment so authentic it could fool a New York housing inspector, complete with U.S. power outlets and appliances, running water, off-camera closets crammed with kids' toys and paraphernalia, and specially printed books lining the shelves.
"It was a functional apartment," Waltz said. "You could've moved in."
In whatever city Reza's play has been performed, audiences have discerned people they recognize: London power couples, stroller-pushing Park Slope yuppies. Reilly thinks "Carnage" captures a reality of many of today's parents who micromanage their kids' lives because they're overcompensating for the lack of quality time they get to spend with their offspring.
"It really is a glimpse at how parents parent all over the world these days," Reilly said, "this idea of the hovering parent that tries to solve any conflict for the kid."