Every cinema success story obscures a thousand copycats both professional and amateur; people who rose out of their theatre seat, hustled a budget and laboured through hours-long shoot days, all to come out not with the masterpiece for the masses they craved, but a missive that said exactly one thing: “like, holy shit, how good is Tarantino, you guys?”. I blame Quentin for the worst of it, though he and the ’90s wave of low-budget, high-wordcount directors that he rose to prominence with, from Richard Linklater down to Kevin Smith, are inadvertently responsible for smug, talky and odious stabs at genre trickery from people with no business writing them. Enter John Michael McDonagh, brother of fellow writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) and known for brusque Irish affairs like The Guard and Calvary. From the opening line of his New Mexico cop comedy War on Everyone—“I always wondered what sound a mime makes when it gets hit by a car”—there’s cause for concern that he’s fallen into the same smart-alec trap. Thankfully, the same guile that gave Calvary its emotional sucker punch makes this a headlong trip into surprising and cunning genre riffs.
The rapidfire dialogue between rogue officers Terry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob (Michael Peña) is cut by him and returning editor Chris Gill like ping-pong serves, bouncing around scenes set in stale middle-class environs and landing on each line with boisterous pride.1 The dialogue, penned by McDonagh, is packed with character quirks which put the cart before the horse in terms of character development, like when Terry proselytises to a crime witness on the music of Jim Cunningham, without us knowing what it’s meant to tell us about his hard-drinking personality. All this spells disaster, and yet as War on Everyone elbows its way through clichés to a blood-soaked finale, it reveals an unassailable penchant for morbid absurdity that is totally McDonagh’s own. It’s as though he’s trying to throw contemplation to the wind through a mildly distinctive B-movie, and failing beautifully upwards.
Key to its perverted success is how it avoids any pretension towards trite drama. Under the lurid designs of cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (99 Homes, Time Out of Mind), art director Billy W. Ray (several Breaking Bad episodes) and a narrative stripped of all world-building flashbacks and trickery, Alberquerue is rendered a chain of signifier-littered spaces, where surface-level nonsense is celebrated and conventional wisdom ripped up in crass, lively style. This is an especially impressive gambit in a year where a genre parody, Deadpool, becomes a mega-hit by burrowing for character motivations and arcs while pretending it didn’t need them. War on Everyone has no need to pretend—it delightfully doesn’t care if the audience is abreast of the thorny crime plot, involving a gang of bank robbers and a malevolent posh horse breeder (Theo James). Likewise, while the Ryan Reynolds-starrer tapped into discriminatory humour while labouring under the impression that it was a progressive idol, War couches its “problematic” gags in situations that either make Terry and Bob the ignorant butts of the joke, or confirm their prejudices so absurdly that it reinforces the harmless (albeit violent) cinematic fantasy land they live in.2
It would look like McDonagh’s doing his own spin on Seven Psychopaths, his brother’s America-set film, in trekking across the pond to rip American genre fetishists a new one with their own tropes. The concessions he claws back in this quest for simplicity are both confounding and marvelous. Fine, let’s have a snooty British villain played by a hot young actor from the Divergent series, but let’s have Caleb Landry Jones, the ghost-faced male lead from Heaven Knows What of all people, as his henchman. And sure, the two men have women on their arms to talk sense into them—Stephanie Sigman (Spectre) as Bob’s whip-smart wife, Tessa Thompson (Creed) as a majorette and Terry’s lover—but let’s grant them some dimension by way of a penchant for smart-assery rivaling their men and a scene that resoundingly passes the Bechdel-Wallace test. And if we must ascribe the most basic reason to hate the bad guys in time for the final showdown (and boy, do they ever), let’s roll it out with a seedy tracking shot where James skulks topless through his opulent mansion, surrounded by the fruits of his horrible labour. There’s a palpable hope that these screams into the winds of nihilism are welcome, and by my measure, the vivid aesthetic and deep-cut needle drops3 make that hope well placed.
Ultimately, however, it starts and ends with the central duo. Peña has swagger for days as an immaculately costumed, foul-mouthed man of the house, and while I barely know what in the hell led Skarsgård to hunch himself over and mush lines through a mouthful of liquor, I’m glad it happened, since some sequences that put him front and centre (including a dance to “Rhinestone Cowboy” with Thompson and a descent into drunken madness during a club stakeout) are totally indelible. As the peculiarities mount, you realise that they’re not blasé about their sordid lives, they’re bored. No-one and nothing is real in this funhouse mirror reflection of Albuquerque/Reykjavik, and they know it—Terry knowingly marvels at his car’s indestructibility as he mows down mailboxes, and Bob returns home to his millionaire mansion after being fired from the force without batting an eyelid. There’s only so far you can push the anarchy without having to administer doses of sincerity, so it’s McDonagh’s peculiar voice and directing style that does the honours, and the way he can’t help but elevate his own lewd material in War on Everyone makes him—if he somehow weren’t already—a creative force to be reckoned with.
Around the Staff