I’ve never seen a film quite like Onur Tukel’s Catfight. First thing’s first, though – if you pick this up hoping to see women fighting each other then boy howdy does it deliver. Our combatants, Anne Heche and Sandra Oh, spend a decent proportion of the film beating the absolute shit out of each other.
Neither pulls any punches, either, hurling themselves at each other with crazed, sadistic viciousness. Eyes swell up, lips split and bones crack and still they get up for more, screaming like banshees as they try their best to pound the other’s face into a gooey, comatose mush. This is all helped by the meatiest *thwack* sound effects this side of a Rocky sequel. If you need a direct point of comparison, think the Roddy Piper/Keith David alley fight from John Carpenter’s classic They Live.
The two are locked in combat pretty much just because they’re assholes. Heche plays Ashley, a struggling anti-establishment artist whose nightmarish drawings are considered essentially unsellable. She’s a petty tyrant in the studio, berating her cute-obsessed, squeaky voiced assistant Sally, who just wants to draw happy bunnies. Meanwhile, Oh plays Veronica, a wealthy trophy wife who, when she sees her teenage son drawing feeds him encouraging words of support like “I will support whatever you do. As long as you go to Yale and study finance” and, “You can be anything you want. Just don’t be.”
Bristling away in the background is the election of a far-right US President who promises a new war in the Middle East (apparently purely out of spite). It leaves the two women on either side of a political chasm: Ashley scratching out frantic anti-American drawings and Veronica practically glowing with avarice as her husband lands a lucrative Halliburton-esque war contract.
Then the two meet. Ashley is miserably serving drinks at a neocon birthday party attended by Veronica. They lock eyes at the bar: “Jesus, you look like someone I went to college with…” Each one quickly sizes the other up, wrinkling their nose with distaste at where the other has ended up. A couple of minutes later, fired up by external frustrations, the pair bump into each other in a stairwell. Then they’re pounding each other into the floor.
Punctuated by two-year time-skips (during which one of the pair has been rendered comatose), we see their social and financial standings invert. Both become avatars of rageful vengeance, their mindsets summarized by Ashley’s memorably bonkers utterance: “My spirit is broken. My heart is full of hate. I have nothing left to do in this life but destroy you.”
This adds up to a film that’s as funny as it is vicious. Though neither character is remotely sympathetic, they’re both deeply entertaining. Each is powered by malevolence, consumed by their own egos and acting on their most primal urges. It’s arguable that they’re only really themselves when they’re fighting – the cathartic combat a distillation of the casual bitchery they inflict upon the rest of the world.
Layered on top of that is a glaring unsubtle political element. Though it premiered in September 2016, this feels like one of the first genuinely Trump-era films. Tukel takes a page from Idiocracy in sketching his world, with brief n’ breezy info-dumps provided by a smarmy late night TV host who dismisses any worries by repeatedly introducing a man in a diaper known as ‘Fart Machine.’ Over the course of the film we see an America staring into the abyss: with the decimation of healthcare and a draft that sends 16 year olds off to die in the Middle East.
The film’s over-the-top personal conflict soon becomes a pretty naked metaphor for the rabid state of American political discourse. Nowadays we don’t so much have political differences as we do yawning Sarlacc Pit chasms. And sometimes, when faced with someone who embodies everything you despise, everything that keeps you up at night, everything stupid, short-sighted and mean about the world – you just want to smash them right in the snotbox.
I really, really enjoyed Catfight. Heche and Oh are both outright brilliant and ably supported by the likes of Alicia Silverstone and Dylan Baker. Individual mileage may vary, though: you need an appreciation of dark comedy, tolerance for extreme violence and love of the absurd to get the most of out of this. But it hit all my buttons and then some. In fact, I think I’m going to watch it again right now.
Completely bonkers, incredibly violent and devilishly funny, Onur Tukel's Catfight feels like the first real Trump-era movie.