SXSW 2016: John McDonagh’s War on Everyone
A film that's equally easy to over and undersell.
Published on March 17, 2016 | Filed under Review
SXSW 2016

With just a couple of films John McDonagh has become one of my favorite working directors. A master of blending pulp conventions, pure id and genuine, poetic considerations of morality with a style that can perhaps best be described as Irish Coen Brothers. There’s a serene confidence to his work that makes it unique. A feeling that for the entirety of its runtime McDonagh has you dead in his sights.

War On Everyone may not be the masterpiece that Calvary was but it’s a twisted, profane, sneakily moving film and if I see a better movie this festival it will be a happy occasion. If Evelyn Waugh scripted the next Tarantino joint, if Don Siegel had been heavily influenced by the theater of the absurd, if Sam Fuller collaborated with Sam Beckett… Well you get the idea.

War On Everyone follows two Albuquerque cops who extort and rob any criminal unlucky enough to come across their path. Eventually, after poking around the periphery of a heist gone bad, they focus their harassment on a carpetbagging British gangster. At first the film seems like it might go too cartoonish, the cop’s participate in a brand of mayhem severe enough to make Brendan Gleeson’s character in The Guard blink and with a serene lack of concern that almost dares the viewer to call bullshit (the movie opens with the cops running down a coke dealing mime with their car). Indeed the tone does keep War On Everyone from reaching the heights of McDonagh’s other work, and at times the cartoon pose the characters slip into actively lowers the stakes of the film (take the final shootout, which plays like a parody of heroic bloodshed exactly when it should be driving in the nails).

War on Everyone

Yet for so much of the film this anarchic tone works. A scene where the characters take a side trip to Iceland and find their suspect instantly, basically because they need to find their suspect to keep the movie going, works with a logic that wouldn’t be out of place in a Looney Tunes short or a Road To… movie. But while this kind of meta humor could be shrill or too knowing, McDonagh and crew pull it off with a speed and confidence that never gives you time to question its internal logic, let alone the inclination to.
Much of the credit goes to the cast that McDonagh assembles. First and foremost the central partnership between Michael Pena and Alexander Skarsgard. Pena has always had a weird alien comic energy and it feels like in War On Everyone he’s found its ultimate expression, in a way that lets him play both straight man and devil on the shoulder. Pena delivers dialogue both profound and profane with the same deadpan zen, wrangling laugh lines from the most unlikely places (watch for him asking his waiter about how he may have prepared his wine). Skarsgard is equal to his end of the partnership, his character both darker and more human than Pena. The two feed off of and into one another in a way that sells their bond without forcing it. They’re matched by a supporting cast, most prominently Tessa Thompson who brings her usual formidable presence, as well as Stephanie Sigman and Paul Reiser (channeling latter day Michael Keaton).

McDonagh shoots outside of his native Ireland for the first time and approaches Albuquerque with a weird sense of alien disconnect. Equally adrift in its natural beauty, and antiseptic municipal spaces. There’s the sense, as in something like Paris, Texas of a foreign director somewhat baffled by the size of the place. It ends up being the perfect psychic space for this group of characters who treat every environment like a stage.

War On Everyone is a difficult film to write about. Equally easy to over and undersell. It ultimately doesn’t amount to much more than 100 minutes of mayhem. But when the mayhem is this good, this confident, this funny, this bound by and dedicated to its own logic and philosophy, well I for one simply can’t resist. War On Everyone might not be the best film of the year, but if I have a better time at the theater I will be sorely surprised.

Bryce's book, Son Of Danse Macabre is currently available for the Kindle.