War on Everyone
(SPOILERS) John Michael McDonagh’s latest is all over the place, in much the same way his younger brother’s Seven Psychopaths was all over the place, only less coherently and satisfyingly in the end result. Which isn’t to say War on Everyone isn’t, for the most part, hugely enjoyable, in a gleefully provocative, disgracefully inappropriate and unruly manner, but that the most propitious milieu for the McDonaghs may not be Stateside, where the impulse to move towards – for want of a better word – Tarantino-esque crime storytelling may ultimately detract from all the other elements fighting for air.
It also bears noting that dabbling in more traditional crime movie territory (albeit, as he repeats several times on the commentary, to madcap or surrealist effect) exposes McDonagh’s limitations as a director, and perhaps as a screenwriter trying to bite off more than he can chew (although, don’t impugn the latter to him directly, or he’ll start asking you to prove you can do better). War on Everyone frequently comes across as almost recklessly undisciplined, so loosely threading its string of characters and targets that one begins to assume its intentional. After all, both The Guard (easily McDonagh’s best) and Calvary (his most thematically rich, but also ultimately slightly disappointing as a result) clearly knew exactly what they wanted to say, what story they wanted to tell, and how they wanted to tell it.
There’s never such a sure sense of grip and purpose here. Indeed, the subplot concerning child abuse comes across as unfortunately glib, a misjudgement given the director has previously tackled the subject with due weight; it feels tacked on for the sake of giving our heroes’ a just cause (Skarsgård’s character’s history in this regard is also too oblique to really offer substance or weight, and a scene in which the villain reads Alice Through the Looking Glass to his bikini-clad daughters gives off a similar air of ill-advised frivolity). Indeed, the showdown brought to mind the first part of Red Riding Trilogy, but not in any kind of tonally recognisable sense.
Of course, the slipshod approach is in partly announced by the all-comers title. War on Everyone is much better as an idea for a movie than a banner, lacking the bite to accompany its misanthropic invitation. Bad Santa did something similar, but War on Everyone is woolly, one-part politically spun but too broad in remit to actually mean anything much in the end analysis. Albuquerque detectives Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) and Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) are the least positive examples of law enforcement imaginable (McDonagh litters the story with references to injustices, from The Algiers Motel Incident to the “contentious issue” of whether some SWAT guys had a good or bad shoot), always looking to grift the hoodlums and displaying a wanton disregard for due process or anything approximating upholding the principles of the job.
Terry: You’re a dyslexic, and you’ve got multiple sclerosis?
Power: Yeah, I’ve had a lot of hard luck in my life.
McDonagh takes unbridled relish in his characters saying and doing what they shouldn’t, from Terry and Bob’s lieutenant Paul Reiser down (“I’m married to a Chink myself” he says, professing sympathy over the racist abuse Bob has suffered from colleagues), the concept of political correctness being a quaint hood ornament. And the targets range from the surreal (“I always wondered, if you hit a mime, does he makes a sound?”), to the entirely insensitive (“It used to be called stupidity” Bob replies, when David Wilmot’s Pádraic Power protests that he is dyslexic, the first of a series of ridiculous disabilities with which he claims to be afflicted). Bob is no less dismissive of his kids, making particular time to deal out insults to his obese eldest son.
Bob: He would have tried to kill them, if he had the chance, Quaker or not.
The level of absurdity is sufficiently heightened that there are times this could easily switch places with a Will Ferrell-style comedy. Entering the house of a woman who has just stabbed her husband to death (he was a key player in their latest scam), the duo casually munch burgers at the crime scene as she wails unceasingly (“Can we play a little game of shut the fuck up?” asks the unsympathetic Bob). Terry becomes frustrated over losing at tennis to a pair of burka-clad opponents and does a tremendous pterodactyl impression as he threatens a toupee’d, pint-sized jockey. McDonagh even flirts with self-immolation in a conversation on quality porn movies (“It starts and ends with the script. If you ain’t got a good script, you ain’t got shit”).
A shootout in a mall finds the boys using a waiter and a guy on a mobility scooter as human shields while a mariachi band plays on, oblivious. Tracking down their ill-gotten gains leads them to Iceland, where they are confident of finding Reggie (Malcolm Barrett) quickly (“How many fucking black people do you think there are in Iceland?”); right on cue, they spot him. Reggie is shacked up with a transgender partner, leading to a blithely indiscreet conversation regarding the former’s sexual orientation (“Straight, huh? With an asterisk?”) A kid begging outside a supermarket is confronted over the bad spelling of his “homles” sign (“Bad presentation, it’s why you’re broke”) and, on discovering he is the son of the stabbed man who took flight, they debate what to do with him (“Social Services? We may as well sell him to the fucking Philippines”).
McDonagh, being a very literate fellow (a playwright, no less), naturally also takes in art and philosophy, mainly via Bob’s well-read wife (Stephanie Sigman), and Terry's girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) – who comments "Was that actually murder, philosophically speaking?" of her father, who committed suicide-murder when he killed another man after the bullet passed through his brain, taking out another man sitting next to him – but throws in off-the-cuff lines throughout (“He wrote a well-regarded monogram on André Breton. And he had a nice dick”; “But then again, Pythagoras believed that, after you’re dead, your soul goes into a fucking green bean”).
The cast acquit themselves with honours; Pena is the business in everything, a ball of irrepressible, mischievous energy, while Skarsgård, all stooped, ape shoulders and deader-than-deadpan, somewhat atones for The Legend of Tarzan (he replaced Garrett Hedlund and was cast after McDonagh saw footage of him drunk at a football game), although he isn’t naturally the most sympathetic of actors.
Theo James, as villain Lord James Mangan gives off the vibe of a low-rent Rupert Everett, just without the charm or charisma, while whatever Caleb Landry Jones is doing as his enervated henchman Russell Birdwell, I’m not quite sure, but it’s entirely scene-stealing (I see he’s appearing in the other McDonagh’s next). Barrett wears a suitably beleaguered face throughout, at the confounding behaviour of his unwanted cop associates, while Paul Reiser scores as their ineffectual superior. David Wilmot has appeared in all three McDonagh movies, and he’s on particularly chucklesome form with his running gag of debilitating conditions (“I’m an only child”). He even provides laughs in death (“I thought you were going to keep it as a souvenir or something” Bob comments, when Terry retrieves his head to give it a proper burial).
War on Everyone’s such an avalanche of quotable lines and hilarious vignettes, it seems grouchy to suggest it doesn’t hang together terribly well. McDonagh might argue the scattershot aesthetic is intentional, but another director might have been able to give this more form and rhythm (the sadly-departed Tony Scott, in True Romance mode, springs to mind). He throws in plenty of Dutch angles and is a veritable hive of information about shots he has quoted from other movies, but he hasn’t fashioning them into stylistically cohesive whole. Most movies have a discernible trajectory, whereas War on Everyone ricochets to its destination without any clear intent, pace or plan. It’s immensely likeable in its unreconstituted, dyspeptic levity, but it’s also an unmanageable sprawl.
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