There was a great gag in an episode of 30 Rock in which Liz Lemon traced the contentment of a group of wealthy women acquaintances to them having their own fight club. That outlet for aggression was a Tupperware party compared to the knock-down-drag-out pounding that Sandra Oh and Anne Heche exchange not once but three times in Catfight, indie writer-director Onur Tukel’s razor-toothed takedown of obscene privilege in a world indifferent to real pain. While the broad political commentary is beyond obvious, the satire of ugly entitlement draws blood, thanks to balls-to-the-wall performances from the adversarial leading ladies.
From Krystle and Alexis on Dynasty to Cookie and Anika on Empire, the catfight has long been a delicious guilty pleasure in depictions of female rivalry taken to extremes. But the depth and intensity of the rage driving Oh’s Veronica and Heche’s Ashley to send one another to the coma ward on separate occasions is something altogether more extreme, rooted not in personal grievances but in societal disease.
This is not the usual hold-my-earrings, hair-pulling, bitch-slapping spat. Instead, it’s the kind of bone-crunching, face-pummeling annihilation that, outside of stylized martial arts movies, is strictly the death-match domain of men on screen. That will make it an acquired taste for sure, but the movie and its must-see performances are so far out there they virtually guarantee a certain cult cachet.
The opening cuts between the two principal characters’ lives in a sublime display of bad parenting and bad partnering. Acerbic Veronica lives in sleek Soho style with her husband Stanley (Damian Young), whose company stands to reap huge profits from debris-disposal contracts in the newly elected American president’s latest war on the Middle East. Sucking down vases of red wine, Veronica is disturbed to see her sensitive son Kip (Giullian Gioiello) sketching reindeer. “Why are you drawing that?” she asks. “Art isn’t a real thing,” she then explains, telling him he can be whatever he wants as long as he goes to Yale and enters the finance sector.
Over in working-class Bushwick, Brooklyn, an art dealer (Steven Gevedon) admires Ashley’s work but calls her ultra-violent paintings too insane ever to find a market. Her sweet assistant Sally (Ariel Kavoussi), who draws cute blue bunnies, suggests using less red, a color known to feed anxiety. But seething Ashley clearly has no connection to a world that just wants to relax. The tension extends to her home life with partner Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), whom Ashley insists is the “more masculine” of the two and therefore should be the breadwinner.
While she’s reluctantly helping out cater-waiter Lisa by serving at a party for Stanley, Ashley encounters former college friend Veronica and the undercurrent of hostility between them instantly sets off sparks. “Are you still doing that art thing you do?” asks Veronica, giving some indication of why they fell out years ago. When they find themselves in the stairwell later that evening, by that time well beyond the point of diplomacy, fists start to fly.
The choreography of the outrageously extended fight scenes by stunt coordinator Balint Pinczehelyi is remarkable, with each successive appearance of exhaustion and surrender giving way to another flailing bout of punches and kicks, accompanied by amped-up visceral sound effects. Ashley staggers away from that first round while Veronica slips down a flight of stairs, sustaining head injuries that put her in a coma for two years. During that time, the war has accelerated, claiming her family in different ways, while the grim times have made Ashley’s paintings an art-world sensation.
With all her wealth siphoned into hospital expenses, Veronica ends up on the couch of her former housekeeper Donna (Myra Lucretia Taylor) in the first of the movie’s matching reversals of fortune. Over a four-year period, the two monsters of entitlement both are forced to rely on the help they either took for granted or outright abused. That prompts them to think for a moment about kindness and compassion before their internal system reboot switches back to its default setting of simmering blame-game contempt.
The second violent faceoff is even more extreme than the first. By the third clash, the circumstances of both women have been so greatly reduced that détente seems almost possible for a minute. But it’s as if writer-director Tukel is throwing down a gauntlet to the audience, testing our stamina to endure another fresh onslaught of punishment right along with Veronica and Ashley.
However, there also are moments of emotional insight into these fiercely unsympathetic characters that keep you watching. Both women experience the loss of a child and both become more ambivalent about the former drive behind their successes, whether as trophy wife or artist. Much like Stanley’s war profiteering, the movie asks if Ashley’s art is expressing or exploiting the nation’s collective dread. But Tukel is definitely not interested in warm, fuzzy lessons or reassuring character transformations, at least not for long. That ruthless undercurrent gives Catfight an invigoratingly dark edge that helps disguise its weaknesses.
Chief among them is the unsubtle satire of American foreign policy and the public’s numbness to chaos, even at the cost of its sons and daughters. This is conveyed via intermittent glimpses of an asinine talk show on which a sardonic host (Craig Bierko) mocks terror alerts and military interventions, before introducing the popular laugh-riot segment of “The Fart Machine,” a flatulent fatty in an adult diaper. Mike Judge’s Idiocracy took similar jabs about plummeting national intelligence levels 10 years ago; here they just seem way too easy.
The political digs get even more blunt when Veronica goes to stay in Maine with her crazy last living relative, Aunt Charlie (Amy Hill), who introduces her niece to the trees on her property: “That’s Bernie, he’s an oak, sweet and grounded. That’s Hillary. Strong, but a little untrustworthy. Oh, that’s Donald, he’s an asshole.” Despite those election-year groaners, Hill does eventually make something of the character, finding sweetly sane moments of truth in the midrange between Charlie’s fatalism and her hippie-dippy worldview.
Tukel gets in some sharp shots at the American healthcare nightmare, via amusing appearances from Dylan Baker, who presents himself first to Veronica and later to Ashley as the hospital’s “comatose doctor,” and from Tituss Burgess as a physical therapist whose concern is strictly timed to their coverage cutoff. Taylor and Kavoussi (who sounds like Anna Kendrick pumped full of helium) both are endearing as women compelled for different reasons to help out their selfish former bosses. And what a delight to see Silverstone again, playing a seemingly agreeable woman whose brittle side surfaces in a hilarious baby-shower scene.
But Catfight is first and foremost a bloody pas de deux between Oh and Heche, whose gutsy turns display fearless commitment interspersed with just enough glimpses of shattered defeat to keep them human. The sheer singularity of their double-act also is brilliantly echoed in Tukel’s music choices, from kitschy Laugh In-style zaniness to stormy classical, from patriotic anthems to rambunctious can-can tunes. That range just about sums up the can’t-look-away thrill of two performances touched by madness.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Production companies: MPI Media Group
Cast: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Amy Hill, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Ariel Kavoussi, Craig Bierko, Dylan Baker, Damian Young, Peter Jacobson, Catherine Curtain, Stephen Gevedon, Giullian Gioiello, Jay O. Sanders, Tituss Burgess, Ivana Milicevic, Jordan Carlos, Lisa Haas, Eva Dorrepaal, Ronald Guttman
Director-screenwrite-editor: Onur Tukel
Producers: Gigi Graff, Greg Newman
Executive producers: Mailk Ali, Badik Ali, Hamza Ali
Director of photography: Zoe White
Production designer: Estee Braverman
Costume designer: Charlie LaRose
Casting director: Stephanie Holbroook
Stunt coordinator: Balint Pinczehelyi
Not rated, 96 minutes