John Michael McDonagh’s films – quietly depraved though they may be – have until this point benefited from a superficially nonchalant demeanor with just enough negative space for the creeping anxiety lurking underfoot to seep in, revealing the worried minds underneath the carnage. The low-and-slow black comedy The Guard wore its Irish brogue smoothly and the superior existential drama Calvary was frighteningly calm under heavy pressure. By way of comparison, War on Everyone, his third directorial effort, really can’t be bothered to give us a glimpse of its own private madnesses at all. It’s too busy showing off. Any meaningful observation it has is intercepted by its own lacquer of cool, ambushed by the script’s incessant compulsion to entertain at any cost. This film is coked-up and addicted to its own cleverness, so eager to please that it doesn’t notice how high on its own material it actually is.
What’s more crooked than crooked? Albequerque cops Terry (Alexander Skarsgard) and Bob (Michael Pena), but they aren’t exactly Abbott and Costello, even though they try to be some arbitrary combination of Graucho, Harpo, and Chico. I don’t think they were discriminate enough to bother to decide which two they would be though. With “cops in the desert” and Pena’s ever-game presence in tow, I was hoping for the kind of film McDonagh’s brother Neil might have fashioned out of the subject matter: a ruthless parody of End of Watch. But War on Everyone isn’t much more than a film wanting to ape and gawk over End of Watch (and other interracial cop movies) that wants us to think it is better than that vigorously, uniquely lazy motion picture. The whole film is lathered in second-helpings of Tarantino hand-me-downs, especially that coolly detached post-modern vibe that allows it to smack us with racist clichés on the auspices that we grant it the leniency of knowing it means them ironically. The film, of course, then gets to swallow all audiences regardless of political opinion, welcoming all under its maw without any attempt to problematize itself. That’s not confidence – that’s cowardly.
Irony is also the kind of excuse astute teenage filmgoers, having discovered Kubrick in the past month and newly animated with feelings of superiority and good taste, throw out to rewrite their appreciation of films like this. The irony allows them to append a kind of intellectual appreciation to something they enjoy on a wholly trivial and immediate level, coating a simple film in an enamel of cunning. Rather than owning up to its debt to Lethal Weapon and nailing an ounce of that film’s quiet panic or fried-nerve banter – the very emotions McDonagh’s The Guard utilized so well – War on Everyone microwaves Lethal Weapon in a veneer of cheeky irony in hopes of hiding how reheated the whole thing is.
The two protagonists excrete generalizations about corruption, wielding actively ironic foul-mouths and a brutality that is, I suspect, supposed to indicate that McDonagh is trying to complicate their hero stature in the most gloriously superficial way possibly. But the dialogue is too cool, too calculated, too crystal-clear when it should be off-kilter, uncomfortable. It should create frisson, making you pause, rather than flying off the finger-tips with grace and ease. The former takes genuine bravery, asking a film to bear its soul rather than hide itself in a string of pseudo-intellectual references to feminist existentialists and the forebears of anarchism, each a no-holds-barred check-me-out name-drop that accomplishes nothing beyond stroking McDonagh’s ego. The Glen Campbell refrains, meanwhile, feel cloyingly manicured rather than stimulating bursts of unexpected contrast. There’s no quiltwork of contradiction here, just a film with a bad attitude and no capacity for self-reflection.
No film with Michael Pena so front-and-center could be all bad, admittedly, and there are moments – glances, line-readings, tangents, sequences – where the stars align, almost by happenstance. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski is also appealingly versatile with both his framing and coloration, particularly in how the neon-tinted reds seem to assault the brown workaday doldrums of the sandy, parched desert, draining what little life remains. But this is the kind of film you’d expect a semi-witty director’s cinematographer, well-versed in glitzy coolness, would produce if given a first shot at writing. It nails the general social restlessness of McDonagh’s writing, but none of the premonitions of alienation or whispers of fear. Any real possibility of legitimate self-critique – meaning the film would have to drive itself into legitimately uncomfortable regions of the mind – is null and void.
It could be worse, admittedly. Nothing in War on Everyone dips to the infernal level of Boondock Saints, for instance. But the entire film is an exercise in McDonagh actively reducing himself and playing to his (and his brother’s, especially) worst compulsions. Even the otherwise fine performances are sabotaged by the writing’s total lack of ability to patch these characters into anything resembling a narrative. In McDonagh’s previous films, the best moments slithered up behind you, weighing on your soul with far more on their minds than their calm surfaces initially promised. They were slowly mounting calamities in greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts doom. But War on Everyone actively vandalizes even its best parts. Each workable scene lacks anything in the way of an emotional nook or a mental cranny. Individual sights and sounds may entertain, but nothing accumulates. And in this sense, War on Everyone is cause for concern. A truly good film understands that its style is its vision of the world – not merely an affectation or a calling card – and I don’t know if McDonagh has given up on creating a vision of the world anymore, or whether this really is his vision. I can’t tell which would be worse.