REVIEW: Gleefully Insane Seven Psychopaths Is Meta Movie Mayhem
While I hate to quibble over the details, Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths really contains only six of the nutjobs promised promised in the title — unless you want to count the main character, Marty (Colin Farrell). Marty, an Irish screenwriter living in Los Angeles who likes to drink but wouldn't say he has a drinking problem (though others might disagree) and considers himself an observer of the increasingly and often hilariously crazy events that unfold in the film.
But the film, which is half '90s-style violent comedy and half an meta-critique of that genre, makes a pretty good case for writing as its own breed of pathological behavior — one that tends in its nature to be solitary and that leads you to prey on the experiences and stories of others, to assimilate them as your own to tell.
Seven Psychopaths is set in a bright, rambling Los Angeles in which even the people who aren't employed in the film industry know how to give notes. Marty is working on a screenplay also titled Seven Psychopaths, though mostly he's staring at a blank page and getting sloshed. His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), an unemployed actor who makes cash on the side by kidnapping dogs with his partner-in-crime Hans (Christopher Walken) and then returning them to their grateful owners, tries to provide support, while his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) stews in exasperation. A series of events involving a masked man who's been killing mobsters and leaving a jack of diamonds as his calling card, a stolen Shih Tzu and an ad in the LA Weekly brings all the inspiration Marty could want into his life and a lot more.
Despite his chosen subject matter, Marty claims "I don't want to do another film about guys with guns in their hands." Instead, he'd prefer something about love and peace. McDonagh, an acclaimed playwright as well as a filmmaker, has fewer qualms about the appeal of gleeful carnage and wild-eyed swagger, though he also explores the balance between wanting to create something universal and profound and taking a less complicated joy in things blowing up.
As a mixture of bloodshed and philosophy, Seven Psychopaths is a step up from and a smoother ride than McDonagh's 2008 feature debut In Bruges, which also starred Farrell and which studied the interactions of its two gangsters for meaning like they were tea leaves. In its Adaptation.-esque interrogations of its own developments — Marty's thoughts on where his screenplay is going echo what's happening in the movie, and he and Billy tussle for control over what type of ending they're going to get — Seven Psychopaths presents a clever if largely surface-level argument about cinema as art versus cinema as a delivery system for more immediate gratification.
Despite Marty's wishes, it's the immediate gratification aspects of Seven Psychopaths that win out, by way of the jubilant gore, the crackling verbal back-and-forths and the fact that the cast is stacked with actors who in any other film would be playing the scene-stealing oddball but here raise the ensemble average to something deliciously quirky. Even Farrell, as the least wacko of the men, is interesting — the Hollywood preener toppling into destruction. Walken, playing the mild-mannered, cravat-wearing Hans, cranks up his signature inflection and transforms every other sentence into an odd laugh line. Woody Harrelson, as insane dog owning gangster Charlie, is amusingly and smirkingly scary, following rules that only he understands.
Tom Waits turns up as Zachariah, a man who carries around a pet rabbit and who has a hell of a story to share, while former Boardwalk Empire co-stars Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg pop in for a thoroughly enjoyable discussion of eyeball shooting. But it's Rockwell's demented Billy, grinning like a jack-o'-lantern through the escalating chaos, who reigns over the film's greatest moment when he offers up a suggestion for a climactic scene in Marty's movie that uproariously fills the screen as he narrates and provides sound effects.
Set to a score by Carter Burwell that takes breaks for tunes like P.P. Arnold's "The First Cut Is The Deepest" and Linda Ronstadt's "Different Drum," existing in a start contrast from what's unfolding on screen, Seven Psychopaths is a ball. But there is a hollowness to some of its self-critiques: when Hans tells Marty "your women characters are awful," with little to say and usually meeting a bleak end, he's offering the same jab at the movie he's in. That doesn't change the fact that it's true.
And given the Tarantino-worthy antics the characters get up to, the musings about what these things all mean sometimes seem just that — empty musing. Marty may be offered a vision of how violence can transcend into something more powerful, but the movie he's in can't quite follow the same path. It's a good thing that psychopathy is so entertaining.