A film review by Craig J. Koban October 17, 2012

RANK:  #16


2012, R, 109 mins.


Marty: Colin Farrell / Billy: Sam Rockwell / Hans: Christopher Walken / Charlie: Woody Harrelson / Zachariah: Tom Waits

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh.



There are indeed seven psychopaths of varying degrees of worthlessness and insanity in Martin McDonagh’s SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, his follow-up to his first feature film, 2008’s IN BRUGES.  For his sophomore effort, McDonagh spins a kinetic, brutally violent, macabre and darkly amusing gangster picture that also manages to be a sly and subversive commentary on the types of genre pictures that his very film is trying to be associated with.  It certainly contains all of the requisite traits of most demented crazed-killer fiction, but the fact that McDonagh gleefully riffs on movie violence and storytelling conceits at the same time is the film’s real coup de grace.   

As he demonstrated with his remarkable IN BRUGES (one of the great first films by a director in many a moon, which also made my list of 2008’s Ten Best Films), the Irish playwright turned film writer/director shows that he has more up his sleeve than immediately meets the eye in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS.  The title alone – what a beauty! – definitely promises to explore a series of degenerate human beings and wanton death, bloodshed, and carnage (which we do get), but McDonagh frames those stock elements around a clever dissection of the best and worst aspects of these types of films, almost serving as the audience’s questioning voice of reason.  McDonagh even has a character that’s a struggling screenwriter trying to come up with the next great film idea, who I think is a stand-in for himself and the types of frustrations that he’s experienced with writer’s block.  This allows McDonagh’s voice to be a real presence in the film. 

His film opens with a wonderful scene of playful and irreverent dialogue between two apparent hitmen (played by Michael Pitt and A SERIOUS MAN’s wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg), who engage in a playful discussion about what it’s like to shoot a person through the eyeball (much like PULP FICTION, these hitmen actually have interesting and flavorful exchanges that just don’t advance the plot).  McDonagh establishes these two as potential main characters and then cheerfully disposes of them as a masked killer walks up right behind them as they bicker and blows their brains out.  Meet "psychopath number one", the “Jack of Diamond Killer”, given that name because of his penchant for leaving playing cards on his victims. 



It’s at this point that the film segues to the McDonagh stand-in persona, Marty (Colin Farrell, who was also in the director’s IN BRUGES), who is a struggling screenwriter and chronic boozer that’s trying to write his very own movie called SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, but all he has is…the title.  Well, he does have an idea…he wants it to be a pacifist story about psychos.  Marty’s BFF, an out-of-work actor named Billy (Sam Rockwell, in pure zany loose-cannon mode) wants to assist Marty, but his ideas strain far away from being pacifistic.  Maybe this has something to do with the fact that he’s a dog-thief on the side to make a living.  Along with his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), the two dognap pooches and then return them to their owners for a big reward. 

Whereas Billy is a nutjob, Hans at least is a more soulful one who seems to have a motive for stealing for cash (his wife is cancer stricken and could die and both of them have been through a hellish ordeal in the past that has tainted them forever).  One day Billy and Hans snatch a little Shih Tzu that they hope will lead to another score, but this dog just happens to be owned by a very, very, very protective gangster named Charlie (Woody Harrelson) that will put a bullet into anyone or anything to get the primary love of his life back (you’d figure that a mob man would have a Doberman or a Pit-bull, but never mind).  This, of course, puts Marty, Billy, and Hans in danger, with Marty being the one in over his head…although he gets some great material for his script along the way. 

I have lamented for years that there have been countless knockoffs of PULP FICTION and Tarantino-ian dialogue that have tried to duplicate his lightning in a bottle aesthetic to largely mediocre results.  I feel with IN BRUGES and now SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS that McDonagh has arguably come the closest to matching Tarantino at his own game.  Like Tarantino’s film landscape, McDonagh relishes in making his slimeball characters perversely endearing and likeable, but he further submerges them within a sandbox of reflective showbiz satire.  A lot of SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS feels like a conglomeration of the best aspects of the lurid hilarity of Tarantino, the far-out eccentricities of Charlie Kaufman, and the rat-ta-tat back and forth dialogue of an Aaron Sorkin. 

McDonagh has masterful fun with traversing between reality, fantasy, and self-aware commentary on the movies here.   Many times, the characters engage in discussions about the worst clichés and conventions of violence-heavy mob-fiction, like, for example, how women are poorly written and are easily disposed of (McDonagh actually disposes of two poorly developed female characters within the film while the film characters discuss screenwriter sexism that plagues modern films).  Many of the people that occupy SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS are indeed nutty and without redemption, but McDonagh gives many of them an opportunity to contribute ideas to Marty’s film within the film, often to hilarious results.  For example, when Marty wants his script to have an atypical ending (no shootouts or bloodshed, just his characters camping in the desert and talking), Billy hates that idea.  So, he offers up his own wild and carnage-filled conclusion (which is shown in a hysterically over-the-top fantasy sequence).  Oh…by the way…Billy relays this while he, Marty, and Hans are camping in the desert. 

To compliment the sinfully acerbic and colorful dialogue, McDonagh gets great mileage from his cast.  Farrell is essentially the straight man here, even though he plays a drunken Irish stereotype (one that McDonagh and his character acknowledge).  Rockwell counterbalances Farrell’s subdued work playing a completely unhinged loon that relishes in grandiose – and often idiotic – musings on any subject (his criticism of Gandhi's “eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” ideology is an uproarious highlight).  And, is there any actor better than Harrelson at playing easily charming, but homicidal redneck trailer trash?  Charlie a murdering thug that kills without warning, but…dang it…he still loves his adorable dog. 

There are two performance stand-outs, the first being the great Tom Waits who shows up at Marty’s door one day after Billy puts an ad in the paper requesting real psychos to come to Marty and help him with his script.  Turns out that Wait’s bunny stroking (no…seriously) sicko is a serial killer of serial killers; Waits is kind of sinisterly tender recounting his tale of love and murder to the amazed Marty.  Then…yup…there’s Walken, who lately has used his own peculiar brand of creepiness to elicit unintentional hearty laughs, but here he uses his ethereal strangeness to delicately evoke an intriguing and oddly sympathetic character with a dark and mysterious past.  He’s has not been this crazy good in a film in a decade, and if you need proof just consider the scene where he confronts Harrelson’s mobster in a hospital waiting room where Walken comes off as scarily unhinged just with mild glances and a twisted smile. 

I find myself willfully submitting to McDonagh’s work so easily, perhaps because his films are not just about obligatory action, bloodletting, and chaos.  He mixes deliriously daffy characters with an inventive and witty script that weaves in and out of reality, fiction and meta-fiction with a swift and assured hand while exposing the weaker and more tired aspects of genre films.  In the end, I found this conglomeration of unhinged violence, non-linear storytelling, black comedy, and movie industry satire to be endlessly alluring.  McDonagh may be a Tarantino-clone, but he’s the best one around today.

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