Post-screening Q&As are usually a dull, frustrating affair, where audience members line up to make pretentious observations in the guise of questions, and actors and filmmakers do their best not to say anything memorable. Just once I’d like to see a filmmaker walk out and say “Making the movie was fun. The cast were all brilliant and talented, we shot on 35 mm film, the final cut was 17.26 percent improvised, and that reference in the film to another thing you thought you detected was totally intentional, great job for noticing. Byeee!”
That’s probably why it was so refreshing that director John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, Calvary) was almost meticulously on-brand as “guy who has no time for your Hollywood bullsh*t.”
McDonagh (brother of In Bruges/Seven Psychopaths writer Martin McDonagh) was at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin for the second SXSW showing of War on Everyone, his new dirty buddy cop movie starring Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Peña. The Englishman of Irish descent minced no words in response to the typical film festival fluff questions. Asked about all the artistic and literary references in his film and “What does it all mean, maaan,” his response was something along the lines of, “Writing is boring, I put those in there to entertain myself.”
Asked about the casting process, McDonagh answered, “We had another guy, but he was kind of a prick. Garrett Hedlund.”
Asked about research: “I’ve barely spoken to a police officer in my life.”
Asked what it was about Albuquerque, New Mexico that inspired him to shoot the film there: “They have great tax breaks.”
Was he in a hurry? Perhaps, but sitting McDonagh down for a longer interview doesn’t seem to make him any less blunt. See the other time McDonagh was asked about casting War on Everyone, in a sitdown with the Hollywood Reporter last month:
I continued my casting remit of only hiring actors who like a good booze-up. Brendan [Gleeson], Don Cheadle, Mark Strong, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Caleb Landry Jones, Tessa Thompson — they’ll never say no to a few pints. I actually cast Alexander not because of his great performances in Melancholia, Disconnect or What Maisie Knew but because I saw a YouTube video of him drunk at a Hammarby football match trying to incite the crowd.
Is McDonagh’s persona a bit shticky? Maybe, but it’s a good shtick.
As for the film, I don’t know if it’s great cinema, but it’s a pretty good time. Which is fitting, because I’m fairly certain McDonagh was just trying entertain himself. Any great cinema that resulted would’ve been a happy accident. War on Everyone is about two corrupt cops, played by Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgard (if you’re saying “I’m already sold!” you’re not alone) whose basic view of the world is that everyone who’s not exploiting the system for personal gain is a sucker. You usually only see characters this cynical in arthouse fare, which War on Everyone is decidedly not. It’s overtly pulpy, never shies away from tits or dick jokes, and it’s not trying to satirize anything. Think Bad Lieutenant meets The Three Stooges.
It’s tempting to compare War on Everyone to Shane Black, but Black’s characters tend to be glib dicks in the Rick-from-Casablanca mold, hardass acts just armor to protect their big, soft hearts from a cruel world. I love those characters, but War on Everyone isn’t that. These guys really are about f*cking people over and getting money.
I didn’t love Calvary, which felt like McDonagh’s hyper-personal story about struggling with his own demons — a struggle I wasn’t entirely keen to go through with him. War on Everyone, is conspicuously the opposite of that, a pastiche of cultural references he enjoys, spiced with artistic and historical allusions he knows.
In the opening scene, Peña and Skarsgard run over a mime with their car. Later, when they’re doing cocaine with an informant, the informant asks them where they got such good coke. “We f*cked over a mime,” Skarsgard’s character says.
War on Everyone, McDonagh’s first film set outside Ireland, is refreshing, but not because of any inherent newness. It’s more the simple pleasure of gleeful vulgarity and a well-constructed joke. Avoiding pulp or camp is not something McDonagh’s interested in, so long as the pulp is sufficiently violent and the gags sufficiently funny. I see coverage that keeps calling War on Everyone “a black comedy,” “a jet-black comedy,” “the darkest, black absence of light abyss.” But to me, black comedy implies a kind of realism. The comedy isn’t dark if you never truly believe that a person’s dying in it. War on Everyone is more like a dead baby joke: You never believe the baby is dead; it’s just fun to say such a f*cked up thing. It’s one of those stories whose world you’re never fully immersed in. You’re always conscious of the teller, but the teller is such a cruel, funny bastard that you don’t really care.
War on Everyone has an international distributor, but no U.S. release date as of yet.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.