Arts

Film: The cop caper where everyone’s a smart aleck

Artfully rambling: Skarsgård and Peña

War on Everyone (Cert PG, 100 mins,★★) takes the writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s dark, antic spirit – in Ireland for his last two films – and transports it to Albuquerque, where a pair of corrupt, foul-mouthed cops are receiving a final warning from their exasperated police chief.

Bob Bolaño (Michael Peña) and Terry Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård) are loyal chiefly to each other and easy money. The film opens with them driving at speed towards a fleeing thief dressed as a mime. “I always wondered if you hit a mime, does he make a sound?” ponders Terry, as the target’s scarlet mouth opens in a silent scream before he rolls up over the bonnet. That tactic follows on repeat: a plot contrivance delivering a flip one-liner.

Whether you like this sort of thing depends on your appetite for the cinematic incongruities first popularised by Quentin Tarantino: scenes that juxtapose eye-popping brutality with artfully rambling chat on the part of the perpetrators. McDonagh’s twists include Bob’s monologues on high culture and Terry’s obsession with the singer Glen Campbell. Everyone’s a smart aleck – when the cops get shirty with a suspect called Reggie X, he snaps back: “I’m familiar with the whole cop-slash-informer dialectic.”

Later the film ventures into ever-murkier territory, involving a crack-smoking English lord, his depraved sidekick and child exploitation. It feels as if McDonagh wants to titillate with extended depictions of strip clubs, shoot-outs and head-kickings while reassuring his audience that they are superior to those who routinely consume such fare as entertainment. That’s a Tarantino trick too, but I’m not sure you get to have it both ways, no matter how much dialectic you throw at it.

Still, both Skarsgård and Peña have undoubted screen presence, and there are flashes of a director who is certainly capable of much subtler work.

With My Scientology Movie (★★★, cert 15, 99 mins), the documentary maker Louis Theroux investigates – in his disingenuous but forensic style – the closed world of the religion founded by the science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard.

Despite Theroux’s early protestations that he simply wants to “see another, more positive view” of Scientology, its adherents don’t swallow that line and deny him access. Instead, he interviews a number of disillusioned former members, most notably Marty Rathbun – once a high-ranking insider self-described as the “baddest-ass dude in the Church of Scientology” – whom Theroux persuades, in the course of a testy relationship, to help him stage dramatic reconstructions of alleged verbal and physical abuse of members by the leader David Miscavige and others.

This project, as no doubt intended, draws out hostile Scientologists who respond by filming Theroux and trailing and taunting Rathbun. The emerging narrative is unsettling, odd and inherently unreliable, yet it is impossible to avoid the feeling that one is peering into the darkly complex psychology of a cult.