Film Review – Seven Psychopaths
In 2008, writer/director Martin McDonagh made In Bruges. This was a smart and unique film that was both dramatic and comedic in equal measure. It was so well done that it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. With his latest, Seven Psychopaths (2012), McDonagh once again shows off his talents, seamlessly blending various tones with little effort. And just like before, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were critically recognized for it. This is a dark, screwball comedy-drama that constantly surprises, filled with twists and turns that never feel out of place and finely drawn characters spouting out wickedly funny dialogue. What takes it up a notch is how it folds within itself. McDonagh’s writing and direction molds a story that feels as though it is discovering itself, and asks us to ride along each step of the way.
The main plot only gives us a part of the whole. The lead character is Marty (Colin Farrell). Marty is a Hollywood screenwriter who is currently having a battle with writer’s block. His creativity is also hindered by his willingness to consume alcohol. Marty’s best friend is Billy (Sam Rockwell). Billy supports Marty in his writing, and throws out ideas whenever they spring to mind. The problem is that Billy is a little bit of a loose cannon. He is brash and unpredictable, and no matter what anybody tells him, he’ll act in whatever way he sees fit. Rockwell was made for this kind of character, and his performance is a stand-out from the ensemble. Sided with Farrell’s straight man in Marty, the two make for a nice odd couple.
Billy earns his money by running a dog rescue scheme with his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken). They kidnap unsuspecting victim’s canines, hold them for a few days, and return them for a nice monetary reward. This is actually a clever gig they set up for themselves: there’s no violence, no guns, and at the end of the day an owner gets their beloved pet back while they get some cash in their pockets. Problems arise when they pick up the Shih Tzu of dangerous gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). You see, Charlie loves his dog, even more than he loves his current girlfriend, Angela (Olga Kurylenko). When Charlie learns that his dog has been taken, he goes on a non-stop rampage to get him back, even if it means killing half of L.A. to do it. Harrelson is good at playing Charlie—he adds a bit of silliness to him, even though he is supposed to be feared by everyone.
That is what is given on the surface. McDonagh, who doesn’t settle for making this your typical crime movie, adds another dimension not directly related to the main character’s predicament. The other plot thread involves Marty’s struggle to write his screenplay, which he has titled “Seven Psychopaths.” As Marty, Billy, and Hans try to outrun Charlie, they work together to bring Marty’s film involving crazy, vengeful killers to fruition. One can argue that this is really about the process of writing a movie—how elements come together and how an artist finds creative inspiration from various sources. One memorable sequence involves Tom Waits’s character, Zachariah, and how his life helps Marty write out one of the seven. Another scene features Harry Dean Stanton, whose hate-filled Quaker causes havoc to a level of extreme measures—perfect movie material.
I know what you’re thinking: this sounds a lot like Adaptation (2002). And in a way, it is. Fortunately, McDonagh adds enough of a turn to make it its own thing. This is far more madcap, much more violent, and funnier in a farcical way. It was hilarious to see Marty (Marty = Martin, get it?) visualize his movie from his own life, even taking components of news stories involving real serial killers. Things get even stranger when Hans and Billy start sharing their ideas. Christopher Walken gives one of his better performances in some time. He doesn’t simply do the funny “Christopher Walken” thing (although there is some of that); he also creates a more multi-dimensional character. What Hans brings to Marty’s screenplay (inspired by the relationship he has with his wife) provides for some of the more moving moments. As for Billy, when he describes his vision of the movie’s climactic battle scene, Rockwell gives such an energetic delivery that some people at my screening cheered when he was finished.
A film like Seven Psychopaths could have easily flown off the rails, but luckily McDonagh was able to rein it in. He keeps control, even while events approach ridiculous absurdity. What we get is an examination of tired tropes in the crime genre, and how McDonagh satirizes them is refreshing. As violent and crazy as the film surely is, he adds a hidden spiritual quality that—believe it or not—promotes love and peace. This is one of the more entertaining movie experiences I’ve had this year. There is no “sophomore slump.” McDonagh has established himself as one of the better writer/directors working right now. I look forward to seeing what he does next.
Final Grade: A