The scene opens on a ritzy New York dinner party, as a crowd of defense contractors toast to the lucrative new deals they’re about to sign now that a recently-elected American president has declared a new war on “the Middle East.” Veronica (Sandra Oh), the bored, borderline-alcoholic trophy wife of one of the contractors, moseys over to the wine bar despite having promised her husband she would stay sober for the party. Behind the bar is Ashley (Anne Heche), a starving artist moonlighting as a caterer for the night. The two recognize each other — they were friends in college, yet fell out years ago after some unidentified incident. They dance around the obvious class disparity between them, though each manage to get in a few cutting comments, and part ways. The next scene takes place in a stairwell, as the two women bash each others’ faces into bloody pulp.

This sequence occurs early in “Catfight,” the latest uncategorizable effort from puckish auteur Onur Tukel, and the rest of the film never equals it in sheer WTF-ness. Either unable or unwilling to balance its none-more-black comedy, broader-than-broad political satire, and Looney Tunes-inspired explosions of violence, “Catfight” often seems to hinge some inside joke that the audience is never entirely let in on, and it will be a tough sell beyond the fringes of indie film. But it has a certain outlandish purity of purpose which Heche and Oh follow through on with demonic intensity, making for a film that’s just as hard to embrace as it is to dismiss.

Organized into three distinct acts, “Catfight” gives us two nemeses whose respective lots in life seesaw between tragic ruin and runaway success (always at the expense of the other), and each act ends with a knock-down-drag-out brawl between them, soundtracked to famous classical overtures and goosed with Shaw Brothers-style foley effects. In the first act, Veronica is the one on top: While she drinks her way through a privileged existence, doting on her artistic teenage son (Giullian Yao Gioiello), Ashley is in a rut. Her grotesque political paintings can’t find any buyers, and she’s embarrassingly dependent on her girlfriend Lisa (Alicia Silverstone) for sustenance.

After their first fistfight in the stairwell, however, Veronica falls into a coma, and wakes up two years later to find herself broke and friendless, her husband and son both having been killed in ways she could have prevented were she not confined to a hospital bed. As Veronica struggles to walk again and crashes on the couch of her former maid (Myra Lucretia Taylor), Ashley has become the toast of the New York art world, selling her pieces for thousands, and planning to conceive a child through in-vitro fertilization. But this is only the first reversal of fortune the film has in store, as Veronica plans her revenge…

Perhaps the whole of “Catfight” could be seen as a grand political allegory, history’s neverending cycle of pointless vengeance goofily recast as alleyway brawls between fortysomething women. But it would be easier to make this argument if the film’s more direct attempts at political commentary weren’t so embarrassingly on-the-nose. From time to time, we get dispatches on America’s latest military misadventures from a late-night TV host, who always follows the news by ceding the floor to a man in his underwear who runs across the stage farting — a graceless variation of a joke “Idiocracy” made a decade ago. Later on, Veronica’s mentally ill survivalist aunt (Amy Hill) tells her niece that she’s named all the trees on her property, saying, “This one’s Hillary, she’s strong but untrustworthy. And that one’s named Donald, he’s an asshole.”

The film wobbles between these two extremes throughout, sometimes aiming its jokes well above viewers’ heads, sometimes operating on a grade-school intellectual level; sometimes daring viewers to laugh at truly dark material, at others all but begging for easy applause. That it succeeds more often than not is due in no small part to Heche and Oh, who are wonderfully unafraid to make their characters deplorable people, and also able to invest their downfalls with sincere pathos, complicating any schadenfreude one might be expecting to find. The supporting cast is likewise strong, especially Ariel Kavoussi as Ashley’s chipper, baby-voiced assistant, whose subtle form of revenge on her tyrannical boss is the most purely satisfying arc the film has to offer.

Toronto Film Review: ‘Catfight’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), September 10, 2016. Running time: <strong>96 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: An MPI Media presentation. Produced by Gigi Graff, Greg Newman. Executive producers, Malik Ali, Badie Ali, Hamza Ali.
  • Crew: Directed, written, edited by Onur Tukel. Camera (color), Zoe White.
  • With: <p class="p1"><span class="s1">Sandra Oh, Anne Heche, Alicia Silverstone, Tituss Burgess, Dylan Baker, Ariel Kavoussi, Amy Hill, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Craig Bierko</span></p>