Anne Heche and Sandra Oh do not hold back in "Catfight."

Dark Sky Films

Director: Onur Tukel
Sandra Oh, Anne Heche
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

There are three catfights in “Catfight,” spaced out every half hour, and they are good. When the frenemies played by Sandra Oh and Anne Heche go at it, they go full-on. Both quickly become bloody, feral messes. They do coldcocks and sleeper moves. The actress’ exhaustion and desperation looks real, their moves as powerful as they are sloppy. (More than once we can see a fake-punch clearly miss its target by several inches.) And title aside, these aren’t old ’70s trash film scrapes, two women fighting for mere male delectation. These two acclaimed and accomplished thespian really look like they want to kill each other.

You came for an exploitation throwback elevated by two name stars. What you get is something more. We’re used to the “Vs.” movies — “King Kong vs. Godzilla,” “Freddy vs. Jason,” “Zombies vs. Strippers” — where it takes endless, un-care-about-able plot to get two titans in fisticuffs. There’s no thumb-twiddling here. A grouchy, pitiless dark comedy that moonlights as a twisted political satire, “Catfight” pits Oh’s trophy wife Veronica against Heche’s cash-strapped abstract painter Ashley. They hated each other back in school, and when they run into each other at a SoHo rich person party — where Ashley’s unhappily manning the bar — at first it’s simply awkward. When they bump each other again later in the stairwell, they’re each running red with anger over where their lives have gone. So they take it out on each other, and how.

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Where “Catfight” goes from there, how Veronica and Ashley reignite (then re-reignite) the rivalry, is more inspired than the inspired stunt casting. Twice the story jumps two years, swapping fortunes, killing off nice characters. Even the news, with its eerily prescient talk of a new demagogue in the White House, grows more apocalyptic still. This is a movie for the moment, but not in the usual shallow movie-for-the-moment fashion. Without trying to, it gets at something deeper in the consciousness. It’s a live action cartoon that arrives in theaters in a world that seems like a live-action cartoon, bearing two anti-heroes mired, like much of America, in uncontrollable, unfocused, unquenchable rage.

Oh and Heche are beyond game, both in battle and not. Oh has rarely been better, while Heche’s bottomless irritation is pure poetry, particularly when aimed at her squeaky-voiced, rabbit-drawing assistant, played by Ariel Kavoussi. Neither Veronica nor Ashley are terribly likable, but the actresses keep them grounded and believable, no matter how crazed or violent they get. The movie around them is “South Park”-style, take-no-prisoners assault that mostly (but not always) avoids easy disses of the right, of the left, of richies, of progressives. (As Ashley’s baby-crazy wife, Alicia Silverstone takes a one-note character and makes her giggly and endearing.) But at its heart lies an existential Western about two tragic figures fated to spend eternity in locked horns, fighting for nothing, filled with so much hate they can never be happy. Watching it is like blowing off steam.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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