No, it’s not just you. There’s definitely something in the air. In recent weeks we’ve had a dumb comedy about teachers beating each other silly, a superhero flick with a seriously high body count and a gangster thriller in which Keanu Reeves personally shoots, maims and stabs approximately 8,943 people. We even had a Star Wars in which pretty much everyone died. And now we’ve got Catfight, a comedy-drama about Anne Heche and Sandra Oh kicking the shit out of one another.
True, every film has its own history, its own journey to fruition and its own reasons for being. But movies are made by people, and people live in the world, and our movies are clearly reflecting these blunt, brutal times.
Written and directed by Onur Tukel, Catfight opens on television reports about yet another impending war in the Middle East before introducing us to Tukel’s two protagonists/combatants: Veronica (Sandra Oh) is a wealthy wife and mother whose husband is about to score big with construction deals when the new conflict starts. Ashley (Anne Heche) is a struggling artist who makes gruesome, expressionistic canvases filled with dying babies and blood. One night, she’s working catering at a party thrown for Veronica’s husband’s birthday, when the two women, former college chums, reconnect.
The exact reasons for the first punch thrown are relatively petty. Veronica, drunk off her gourd, can’t seem to stop saying the wrong things to Ashley, and the much-downtrodden Ashley’s feeling a little resentful of her old pal. Soon enough, the two are going at it: flying fists, chokeholds, body slams, the works.
The first fight ends with Veronica in a coma. She wakes up two years later, discovering that her life has completely fallen apart — her family destroyed and all her money gone. Ashley’s fortunes, on the other hand, have markedly improved: Now that the world is at war again, she has finally found an audience for her bleak, bloody paintings. (Tukel seems to be aware that he’s in a similar boat.) With the two women’s roles reversed, fate conspires for them to meet up for a rematch.
I won’t give too much more away, even though Tukel’s game here isn’t really to keep us guessing about where all this is going. He exhibits compassion for these characters — when one’s life falls apart, it does so in horrific fashion — but it’s also clear that he doesn’t intend for this to be taken all that seriously. When our heroines start pounding on each other, the music on the soundtrack gets bouncy, and Tukel’s framing and cutting highlight the fight’s circus-like aspect. All that’s missing is a blow-by-blow announcer. The actresses really get into it, too, which adds to the … well, I guess we’re calling it “fun.”
Tukel treads a fine tonal line here. He is clearly aiming for a kind of allegory; the film’s three-part structure is too precise, the characters’ mirror trajectories too perfectly aligned. And all the references to war in the Middle East are not exactly subtle. But the director’s great charm as a filmmaker — as evidenced in such low-fi, micro-budget works like Summer of Blood and Applesauce — is his ability to take ridiculous ideas and then commit to them in the most unlikely ways. So here he begins with an absurdist concept and two largely detestable characters, then makes us care about their predicament. As these two ladies are brought low, they seem to become more self-reflective. Each time they confront each other, the stakes have changed dramatically: The respective triggers for their fights reflect their growth as people.
Catfight never gets silly enough to edge entirely into satire — or grounded enough to pay off our emotional engagement. Still, it works a kind of dark magic. It’s hard not to get swept up in the leads’ terrific performances, in the playfully ping-ponging poignancy of their respective fates and, yes, in the sheer bloodlust that the film mines. The world of this picture is one where everything’s being held by a thread, where civilization feels like it could instantly turn to chaos with just the wrong word said at the wrong time in the loudest way possible. That certainly hits close to home. In its blunt, inelegant, but surprisingly gripping way, Catfight is the (im)perfect movie for our rotten times.
THE VILLAGE VOICE -- February 27, 2017
Positive review by Bilge Ebiri.