Catfight centres on Veronica (Sandra Oh) and Ashley (Anne Heche) two old university friends who meet again years later at a fancy New York party and proceed to viciously beat the shit of each other.
Veronica is a rich housewife who deeply loves her son but who’s marriage is teetering on the edge, while Ashley is a struggling artist who’s cynical, gory paintings are failing to resonate with potential buyers. When they meet by chance at a swanky party, both are down on their luck and take it out on each other in a sudden and brutal fist fight in a stairwell.
Catfight operates on two levels, heavy-handed satire and white-knuckle slap-wallop action. There’s no good guy in writer and director Onur Tukel’s shrewd take on elite New York society, with both conservatives and liberals taken to task for unrepentant selfishness and hypocrisy. Even characters set up initially as sympathetic are revealed sooner or later to be prone to vindictiveness, victimhood or sickening ungratefulness. Catfight has Something to Say and wants you to take a hard look at yourself, so thank God it still manages to be lots of fun.
This is mainly due to what you probably paid the ticket price for- the titular catfights. Not your normal Hollywood tussle, every punch and kick has an over egged BIFF BANG POW sound effect which lands every hit with a queasy wince. Veronica and Ashley circle and snarl at each other like real cats, and do serious, bloody damage to each other, the long fight scenes being punctuated with them being doubled over wheezing, trying desperately to recover so they can land another hit. Jaunty classical music springs up every time a fight erupts, heightening their temporary brutal insanity and the undercurrent of glee they feel when they are beating each other to pulps. It’s pantomime levels of overblown, but as a result feels much more tangible and real than the PG friendly tepid fight scenes in mainstream action movies like the Marvel films or James Bond.
But this also isn’t Fight Club, with Ashley and Veronica leaving the ring to return to their lives fresh and revitalised. They fight not just because they hate each other but also because they need an outlet from their miserable, vacant everyday lives. Beating seven shades of shite out of the other is a self-indulgent blame game that they love to play, because it’s better than admitting that their own cruelty and mistakes are the reason their lives have went south. The terrible repercussions they have to face after their fights shows that sinking into self-pity is never the answer- if this film says anything, it’s that you’ll never be happy until you face your own failures.
When Catfight doesn’t have its leads at each other’s throats, it’s a snappy political satire holding Westerners to account for their complacency and tendency to only take a shallow interest in the world outside their social sphere. While the film does hit some sombre notes, it’s for the most part a fiendish, tongue-in-cheek comedy, mining most of its material from the obnoxious awfulness of its main players (“isn’t everything a holocaust?” muses Ashley seriously early on in the film).
For Tukel, the privileged are crippled by nearsightedness, breezing past terrible events like wars and death unless it has an effect on them, and even then they only approach it with a petulant ‘what does this mean for ME?’ attitude, and only the very young and idealistic escaping Tukel’s ire. He doesn’t seem to be a complete cynic, and seems to suggest that we have the capacity to be a caring society if we didn’t sleepwalk into private worlds of self-obsession. But the ending doesn’t seem to hold out much hope, with Tukel pretty much saying: we could try to be better, it’s just that we’d really rather not.