John Michael McDonagh Declares ‘War on Everyone’

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War on Everyone is the perfect title for John Michael McDonagh’s latest, a dark comedy that takes aim at, well… everyone. Or its two main characters do, anyway.  Michael Peña and Alexander Skarsgård play Bob and Terry, a pair of swaggering, play-by-my-own-rules policemen who spend their days participating in activities common to your average action comedy cop: Car chases, shootouts, arguing with a captain (Paul Reiser) who wants them to play by the rules.

Planting illegal drugs on informants.

Being racist, sexist, just about every –ist you can imagine.

Running over mimes.

You know. The usual.

“It’s a misanthropic film,” McDonagh explains. “[Bob and Terry] attack everybody. They’re not bullying one segment of the population. They’re actually across-the-board offenders.” There’s a plot to War on Everyone—a shaggy, meandering yarn involving a heist gone wrong, a nefarious British villain (Theo James) and his louche, swaggering right-hand man (an excellent Caleb Landry Jones), and some horses, maybe—but it’s not of much consequence, basically providing a framework for the audience to watch two horrible, hilarious characters be horrible and hilarious for 98 minutes. In a way, War on Everyone is the polar opposite of McDonagh’s last film, 2014’s Calvary, about a priest (Brendan Gleeson) who finds himself in a terrible situation specifically because he’s a good person. Conversely, McDonagh argues, War on Everyone is “about two bad men who do one good thing.”

The London-born and -based McDonagh has crafted a satire of American machismo and the U S of A's near-fetishization of the freedom-loving, gun-swinging cowboy archetype that, taken to its worst extreme, gives us police brutality and mass shootings. That’s part of the reason, McDonagh explains, that he shifted War on Everyone’s locale from South London to a “New Mexico, Western-type setting… In British crime movies, when a character pulls out a gun, it feels inauthentic," because guns aren’t prevalent in Britain--even the cops don't have them. "In America, it doesn’t. You can play around with all these tropes that we’re more used to in an American setting… The satirical aspect of the film is obviously going to be more apparent to an American audience. I assume that a European audience is going to take more of the straightforward, buddy-buddy black comedy [from it].”

Satire can be a tricky thing. McDonagh, who also wrote the script, calls his film “confrontational,” noting that “when you’re laughing at characters, it kind of implies that you like them… [Bob and Terry] are such appalling people, but they are funny at the same time. So you’re putting the audience in maybe a slightly uncomfortable position.” McDonagh’s swum in those edgy comedic waters before; in his first feature, The Guard, there’s a recurring joke about how small-town Irish cop Gerry (Brendan Gleeson) is racist, or at least says racist things (“I thought black people couldn't ski. Or is that swimming?”) to get a rise out of his new partner, a black FBI agent played by Don Cheadle.  “As a filmmaker or an artist, you should be trying to come up with material that’s more original and that the audience hasn’t seen before, that they might be a little bit uncomfortable with,” McDonagh argues.

(Of interest to McDonagh fans: While there is not a Brendan Gleeson cameo in War on Everyone--you'd have thought it'd be easy to work him in as a crowd scene extra, but, shockingly, no one consulted me on the subject--John Michael McDonagh's writer/director brother Martin, of In Bruges fame, does appear briefly, in a photograph of a character's ex-boyfriend.)

So was there at any point something in War on Everyone that McDonagh, who also wrote the script, took out for going too far? “How do you know when you’ve gone too far? You only find out when you have gone too far,” he counters. “It’s only when you get into the editing and you’re watching it with some trusted people that you start to realize, ‘This joke is played more confrontational than I intended it to be.’” As an example, there’s a scene where Terry plays tennis against a duo of niqab-wearing Muslim women, who thoroughly thrash him. Terry’s response—“No need for a fuckin’ Jihad”—is followed by Bob telling another character that “I can’t take him anywhere.” Originally, “I had cut it where it just ends on the Jihad line, so we can’t get a kind of commentary of what Terry’s just said. There’s no acknowledgement that it’s going too far," says McDonagh. "I was always looking for moments where I could let the audience off the hook and say, ‘These guys are bad, but we know they’re bad. We’re not trying to ask you to go along with saying some of the things they say and do.’”