If there is a single lesson to learn from writer-director Onur Tukel’s ferociously brutal Catfight, it’s this: people are horrible. Products of our ever-changing, corporately-fixated environments, we are spiteful, selfish creatures who gain satisfaction from bettering and belittling those in our proximity. Life is a cruel competition, and you most certainly don’t want to among the losers. Whilst this might not be entirely true in reality, it is the utmost in the world of his film; a jet-black, corrosively acidic comedy which is often mightily uncomfortable to witness unfold.
The film follows two women – former college classmates and friends – whose relationship fractured some years ago. Veronica (Sandra Oh), is an unashamed, binge-drinking trophy wife; living an extremely comfortable and pampered life off the back of her husband’s shady business which is tied into the ongoing war effort. Her son is a sensitive type who expresses himself through art, yet she feels as though drawings are a waste of his time – what’s important is learning the stock exchange and making that bank. Ashely (Anne Heche) is a struggling artist, whose paintings are a sobering reflection of the current climate – angry, ugly portraits of death and chaos.
Her girlfriend Lisa (Alicia Silverstone) wishes for her to provide and to start getting her act together, as the pair are hoping to have a child together. In good will to her beloved, Ashley agrees to help wait at a swanky party, in which Veronica is a guest. The pair cross paths, share a brief and awkward engage, before mayhem ensues. Their fight is void of slapping and hair-pulling; rather thunderous punches, kicks, and chokeholds. To say anymore about the narrative development would utterly ruin the experience of watching Catfight, so we’ll leave it at that.
Quite obviously, violence is a signature theme throughout this project. Tukel taps into the primal nature of physical dominance in a way which no other female-driven commercial film has done before. His sequences of warring women are extremely nasty, uncompromising, and macabre in their form, yet surprisingly, for a film called Catfight, the fighting is the actually the least interesting area. Despite the throwdowns being gritty and soaked with claret, there is a huge sense of that ridiculously elongated sketch from Family Guy about them. You know, the one in which Peter battles a chicken incessantly for about fifteen minutes…
What’s really impressive and consequently engaging about this rugged indie is its approach to sociological themes. The film fundamentally argues that those with a degree of power – be that wealth, celebrity, influence et al – have a misguided idea of how to treat others perhaps not in those same set of circumstances. When Veronica meets Ashley at the party, as much is expressed with posture, body language, and dress as dialogue. It renders the idea of a “them and us” demographic in every orifice of life, and shows how shifts in class and status can have dramatic ramifications on relationships.
In truth, Catfight is actually a pretty sad movie; one populated by the most hateful of personas, the most dismal displays of humanity, and the most capitalised approach to community. Throughout, we are updated by a particularly tiresome TV gag in which a schmuck late-night anchor offers insight on the surrounding war, between intervals of a semi-naked middle-aged man wearing a diaper farting. Yeah, seriously. Despite this being annoying and unfunny, the scenes do bare validity to the film’s overarching theme: money controls our interactions, wins our battles, and outlives our individual spells upon this earth. We will live for it, fight for it, kill for it.
Tonally Tukel’s film is a little misjudged. The subtext and messages are compelling, and largely well executed, but additions such as the beguiling soundtrack, and key art choices during the lashings somewhat undermine the sobering story he is trying to tell. Certain moments feel so far away from comedic – these being the strongest parts of the film – that decisions to crash back into almost heightened slapstick is tainting. Still, the interplay, both verbal and physical, between Oh and Heche is fantastic, with both ladies really throwing themselves into the lurid grime of the narrative. Silverstone too is excellent, and provides perhaps Catfight‘s most excruciating sequence at a celebratory gathering. We won’t say what or why, but boy, it’ll have you squirming in your seat.
Off-kilter and confrontational, this is a particularly disarming watch. Tukel’s portrait of pain is not without flaws, but most certainly barks with vicious intent. A good job Oh has had years of medical training on Grey’s Anatomy…
Catfight opens in select UK cinemas on Friday, 10th March.