You might expect that a movie titled Catfight would end with a brawl instead of beginning with one, and, in this case, your expectations would be off. Filmmaker Onur Tukel structures his latest feature around a years-long conflict between Ashley (Anne Heche) and Veronica (Sandra Oh), two women who just can’t keep their hands off each other, which is a shame because they keep running into each other. Call it bad luck, call it fate, call it plot contrivance: They’re doomed to collide at intervals, wrecking their lives every time they meet. It starts less than 20 minutes into the film, too, which is our first hint that Tukel is something of a creative sadist, manipulating the fabric of chance to repeatedly pit Ashley against Veronica, until both are utterly wasted and thoroughly destroyed.
Put in the bluntest language possible, Catfight is an unpleasant movie. It’s also hilarious, saturated with nimble exchanges of dialogue delivered at the pace of Bogdanovich, but with the tone of Solondz. Barbs and jabs make up most exchanges between characters, meaning Ashley, Veronica, and just about everybody unfortunate enough to interact with them. Anything good that happens here is either fleeting or the product of tragedy. Humanity is all but absent from Tukel’s plot, save for brief flashes of compassion from his supporting cast (notably Myra Lucretia Taylor, playing Veronica’s maid, or Ariel Kavoussi, playing Ashley’s fae-voiced assistant). You’ll want to take a shower after watching Catfight, or maybe seek absolution from your local clergyperson.
This is not a film for the faint of heart or the gentle in spirit. It’s a film for people who treat the erosion of the human soul as entertainment. Tukel begins by introducing us first to Veronica, a Manhattanite trophy wife, then to Ashley, an unsuccessful outsider artist dwelling in Bushwick. They’re former college chums, turned bitter rivals for reasons Tukel hints at but never properly explains, which works in Catfight’s favor: There’s no backstory realistic enough to adequately account for the half-decade Ashley and Veronica spend ruining one another (and themselves). It starts at a party thrown by Veronica’s husband (Damian Young) that’s catered by Ashley’s long-suffering girlfriend, Lisa (Alicia Silverstone), who has exhausted her patience with Ashley’s insistence on her art career. Veronica, in her cups, bumps into Ashley, also in her cups. Old resentments flare. They get into a slobberknocker that ends with Veronica in a coma.
Cut to Veronica waking up two years later, and that’s where Catfight really gets going. If M. Night Shyamalan’s Tales from the Crypt reboot was already on the air, Catfight could reasonably comprise its own three-episode arc, hopping back and forth from Veronica to Ashley as time passes by them and their petty feud, and America changes around them in the process: Tukel revels in the same brand of grim moralizing as the old HBO series, toeing the line of horror while teasing his protagonists with promises of normalcy before wrecking them anew. He’s a sick bastard, which is meant entirely as a compliment. Catfight’s pleasures may be bleak, but they’re also plentiful, whether in Tukel’s gleefully twisted sense of humor, or its array of no-holds-barred fight scenes.
You’ll see better examples of choreographed carnage in 2017, but damned if you’ll see a pair of actresses commit to their roles with the level of deranged determination Heche and Oh bring to Catfight. Tukel has a lot on his mind, too much, perhaps, mostly about America as a martial power, as a nation of apathetic voters, as a high culture hub where low culture rules. (Sprinkled throughout the film are segments of a late night TV show whose host cracks wise about the president and the country’s ongoing military involvement in the Middle East, before lightening the mood with a man in a diaper farting all over the stage.) As Veronica falls from grace, Ashley’s star rises, her shocking, unmastered, savage art gaining popularity in wartime, but Tukel wonders if Veronica’s loss of status is a blessing in disguise. Cruelly, vulgarly, it forces her out of New York City and out of our consumerist society.
It’s hard to say whether Tukel cares more about his themes than about his premise, but if the film is messy and scattered, it at least has the through line of the animosity Heche dramatizes with Oh. It’d be false to say that they’re having fun—Catfight is the kind of film that doesn’t even visit “fun” on alternating weekends—but you get the sense that they’re at least experiencing a kind of performed catharsis by working together. (For what it’s worth: Heche is great, but Oh, who emerges as the film’s surprising moral center, is unbelievably incredible.) Tukel may have meant Catfight as a critique of capitalism, vapid commercialism, the New York art scene, or just good old, plain old American indifference, but you can tell that he’s just amped to record Heche and Oh taking turns getting beaten to a pulp.
Whether that’s your idea of a good time is up to you. Catfight’s dedication to its conceit is hard not to admire from an aesthetic perspective, but it’s hard to like it or even tolerate it, which is probably part of the point. Tukel has a low opinion of people, all of them, even Sally and Donna, ostensibly the two purest characters in the entire film. Maybe on a primal level, he made Catfight just to architect Ashley and Veronica’s respective downfalls, because let’s face it: At the end of the day, they’re both grotesque, not beyond redemption but definitely predisposed to self-corruption, and watching their endless Sisyphean decline into amorality takes a toll on us. Thank god for all the fart jokes.
Director: Onur Tukel
Writer: Onur Tukel
Starring: Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Ariel Kavoussi, Damian Young, Alicia Silverstone, Amy Hill, Giullian Yao Gioiello, Stephen Gevedon
Release Date: March 3, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.