If you can say one thing for Catfight, it’s that it delivers on the promise of its title. Sandra Oh and Anne Heche throw hands within the first thirty minutes of the movie, and continue to do so with bone-crushing gusto whenever given the chance, royally messing each other up in ways few women have been allowed to do onscreen in any modern mainstream context. But where the concept of a “catfight” conjures up images of impotent hair-pulling and ineffectual hand slapping, director Onur Turkel’s fight sequences are some of the most vital and vicious I’ve seen, delivering on pure barbarity even when the balls out choreography flies past the point of simple believability.
The pair, who sport saccharine picture-book names like Ashley Chambers (Heche) and Veronica Salt (Oh), were friends in a vague way in college, but when Veronica, the Manhattan-based trophy wife, runs into Ashley at a posh dinner party, the two waste little time before allowing their roiling anger about their personal fulfillment bubble to the surface in the form of juvenile jabs and cool disinterest.
But it isn’t until the two meet again in a crudely lit stairwell that the literal punches start flying. And those punches, foleyed within an inch of their life despite occasionally clearly flying inches past their mark without landing a blow, hurt. But it’s those fisticuffs, though punctuated with dark stretches of the duo’s comically disastrous lives, give the film its rotten little heart. Clearly disturbed by the reflection of their own adult selves in the lives of one another, the women attempt to find release amidst the unending punches, but it’s the audience that really gets to blow off some steam. Not for the fun of it all – no, it’s far too convincing and bloody for all of that – but the subversive joy in watching the film’s pure, bald-faced guts fold in on itself, thanks to Turkel’s sharply calibrated satire at its center.
Not content to simply be a violent romp, Catfight itself unfolds in strange, caustic fever dream of an alternative (or perhaps, not so alternative) future, in which the country is once again embroiled in a “war on terror” thanks to a newly elected shadowy president – information Turkel reveals via a Kimmel-esque talkshow host who delivers apocalyptic headlines with the flippancy of Letterman sleeping his way through a blasé opening monologue, before ceding his screentime to a man dressed in an adult diaper called simply “The Fart Machine”, who does exactly what you would expect.
It’s no subtle romp, but Catfight derives a certain joy from its bluntness. There is no masking the clear commentary embedded in the film’s narrative thanks to Turkel’s own discomfort with the direction of the world. And while the world he paints around Veronica and Ashley is a warped, fun-house mirror reflection of our own glaring societal issues, Turkel is painting with colors that at times can feel uncomfortably relevant, as he applies pressure to the aspects of our current culture – particularly, the malignancy of rage, fear and resentment.
The film unfolds in a surprisingly epic scale, expanding its scope with the conclusion of each brutal interlude, but it would be cruel to spoil one of the film’s central (and bloody brilliant) structural conceits. Suffice it to say, these fights just don’t look real – they’ve also got very real consequences.
Made well before the official presidency of Donald Trump, Catfight feels, in many ways, like one of the most finely tuned responses to the new political climate we’ve seen yet. But Turkel’s latest isn’t so much reactionary as it is prescient, envisioning a world just a few shades darker than our own. Clumsy, brash, and most importantly, really fucking angry, the protagonists of Catfight don’t just offer a cathartic good time, they’re also a real sock in the mouth.