That civilization is but a thin veneer for the inherent savagery of the human family is not exactly a novel insight at this late date, but rarely has it been so gleefully expressed as in Carnage, Roman Polanski’s tightly-wound, here-and-it’s-gone 79-minute adaptation of the Yasmina Reza play, God of Carnage. It might be little more than four people – two married couples, in fact – behaving badly, but at bottom, it’s the ultimate in comic resignation. We’re all corrupt (even you, do-gooders), and rather than collapse in a heap of vomit or tears (both, if you’re so inclined), one may as well surrender to the impulses we so desperately try to control. It’s not a playbook for any sort of reasonable living – it’s always easier to assess life from an impractical, philosophical distance – but it does challenge at least one central tenet of what we absurdly label co-existence, in that any of us actually moves beyond obsessive and never-ending navel gazing. Gather any random group of people in a comfortable, despicably arranged living room and more, much more, than the clamor of ice cubes in glass will be the din of feigned interest; the hopelessly modern silliness that anyone within vicinity is anything other than a sounding board or, much worse, a temporary suspension from the inward retreat. Sure, no one’s arguing for a slouching, slumping drag back to the jungle, but the cuts we inflict in well-tailored suits are hardly less destructive. Our violence comes couched in pleases and thank yous, while our battles are prefaced with cobbler and coffee.

Clearly, Polanski is more than the perfect conductor for this chamber piece of bourgeois illusion, what with his direct line to the infernos of madness disguised as European enlightenment and Southern California sun. We trust him implicitly, knowing full well that mankind is often at its worst when it first insists on pleasantries. He doesn’t trust a damn bit of it, and neither should we, and his cynicism is both well-earned and effortlessly seductive. The dialogue is all Reza’s, of course, but Polanski controls events with the inevitability of death itself, which is only slightly more inevitable than our capacity for cruelty. Still, and as anyone should never forget, this brief interlude just happens to be bitingly hilarious, as is any glimpse of other people coming apart that are not ourselves. The set-up itself is a dissertation on the absurdity of the comfortable class: four slices of white bread standing before a computer as the day’s events – one couple’s kid has hit the other’s child in the mouth with a stick – are hunted and pecked into some kind of official document. All want to solve the problem without accusations or lawsuits, and perhaps if they can all simply have a chat, everyone will leave satisfied. There’s even the promise that the two young boys will sit down, shake hands, and smile it all away. Perhaps the offending boy will apologize, perhaps not, but we’re all educated and civilized, so why not put this to bed and return to our daily distractions? There’s an early sense that the bully’s father, Alan (Christoph Waltz, a master as always), doesn’t expect much from his son, but optimism largely reigns supreme, at least until appearances yield to the usual suspicions and judgment.

Not unexpectedly, Alan and his wife Nancy (Kate Winslet) are wholly unsuited for being on the same planet together, least of all the confines of marriage, and snipes and snippets reveal a further discomfort with what passes for a family. Alan, cell phone buzzing about like a beehive on fire, is consumed by his law practice, but the other end of the line may as well be dead air. He’s an immersed man in full, unwilling to come up for air because he prefers the sensation of drowning. We sense that at least his job simulates the combat he craves, and sitting idle might remind him of his craven mistakes. “A man needs to have his hands free…He needs to be able to at least give off the impression that he is capable of being alone,” his wife might add, as if he would insist he were anything but alone, only at full volume. Above all, though, Alan finds the whole matter a pathetic charade, reasonably concluding that when kids punch and kick, they do so to advance their tenuous positions in a world that will soon remind them that there won’t always be cautious parents advocating for decency. Let them have this brief dance with inhumanity, when the stakes aren’t so high and the wounds not so deep. Only Penelope (Jodie Foster, her first great role in years) doesn’t quite see it that way. Teeth were lost, nerves were exposed, and how can anyone let an injustice go unpunished? Penelope’s descent from stoic museum piece to lost soul is, as with much else, not unexpected, but what resonates most deeply is her submission to the whip crack limousine liberalism so righteously deserves across its back. She’s good intentions swept away by the tide of reality; the very sort who, without a hint of self-awareness, would honestly offer her book-filled involvement with Africa as superior to the soil itself.

Even Penelope’s husband, Michael (John C. Reilly, forever and always a Step Brother), is a casualty-in-waiting, though his “fall” is less to despair than a long-awaited embrace with the Alan within. He’s been hiding away from his manhood for years, and his expressed disgust with rodents (he casually describes setting his daughter’s hamster outside to die, prompting the first of several interrogations) is but a manifestation of shrinking before the strutting superiority of his spouse. The play’s vision, while not reactionary by design, does appear to conclude that half-assed liberalism is always more dangerous than the real deal, and in some sense, at least bigots have the courage of their convictions. At bottom, Penelope is that bleeding heart who writes books about suffering between her endless lectures, all while not having a clue about the way anyone with a pulse actually lives. For her, a lost incisor during a playground brawl can and will be equated with Stalinist purges, which is exactly the lack of perspective that largely killed off what remained of the left’s connection to vitality and seriousness. In a world where “words are weapons” and standards of conduct but rude dismissals of cultural difference, it becomes impossible for the same worldview to change a single heart, let alone a head. Alan and Michael unite for a time, much in the way two men would when the yammer of femininity burns too bright, but they aren’t the “correct” side so much as a brutal repudiation of the most insidious weakness running – that a single person absorbed in the context of their life is ever really capable of empathy. Penelope claims to get it, while Michael ultimately admits his cluelessness. And Alan, well, he’ll take his chances with oblivion.

One feels a sense of relief after Carnage, as if the movie gods at last conspired to provide a good time without redemption. There’s no pretense afoot, as it’s all a lark, but larks often come disguised as blood sport. There’s a jazzy rhythm to the piece that can’t be denied, and amidst all the insults, dirty looks, and pitiful justifications, there’s a Polish midget waiting in the wings to shrug with grim satisfaction. I love this latest turn by one of yesteryear’s masters, and after the haunting finality of The Ghost Writer (as bleak as a Noah Cross chuckle), he seems committed to the notion that life can only be worth living when we finally accept that by and large, it is not. Thankfully, rumors of a “stagy” presentation were unfounded, talk of frivolousness far-fetched, and for the first time in many a moon, I bathed in the glow of actors and filmmakers at the tops of their respective games. It just might be the film’s theme transferred to my heavy heart: expect the worst, and relish the truest form of love that can emerge, the love that is unexpected (and fleeting) pleasure.