In the marketing for “Seven Psychopaths,” CBS Films wants you to count the film’s seven stars, but the one real psychopath (and I mean that in most positive and endearing way possible) that matters is writer and director Martin McDonagh, whose sophomore film and follow-up to “In Bruges” is a cockeyed stroke of genius.
Sticking with what the marketing tells us, this is a film about a couple dognappers who steal a mob boss’s Shih Tzu and get their friend and girlfriends wrapped up in the mess. What it doesn’t tell you is that Colin Farrell’s character is a screenwriter working on a script called “Seven Psychopaths” and all he has so far is the title. Oh, and Farrell’s character is named Marty.
If you can’t tell where this is going, let’s just say that “Seven Psychopaths” is one of those films that reserves a special place for movie junkies and cinephiles. Everyone will find a great deal to laugh at (especially Sam Rockwell), but only a certain percentage will have a gleeful appreciation for the meta-narrative at work.
Luckily, you don’t have to identify as a film nerd to enjoy “Seven Psychopaths.” The film is by no means exclusive or inaccessible, it just reaches another level of storytelling and maniacal brilliance if you can make those connections. Beyond that layer, the film offers a potent combination of semi-gratuitous violence, loony antics and some stirring poignancy. Throw the meta layer back in, and you have the equivalent of if Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” had been directed by Guy Ritchie.
The film begins with Marty, an alcoholic writer, looking for inspiration for his seven psychopaths. His first psychopath is inspired by the Jack of Diamonds Killer, a guy running around Los Angeles killing off mid-to-high-ranking mob men. Funny then, that his nutty friend Billy (Rockwell) should happen to steal Bonny, the precious Shih Tzu belonging to Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a sensitive yet unforgiving mob boss. Charlie is able to track down Billy’s partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), and the trio is forced to make themselves scarce.
If you’re still using the poster to count, then you’re probably wondering about the other three “psychopaths.” Well, one is a true psychopath, and that’s Zachariah (Tom Waits), who responds to an add that Billy put in the paper to try and help Marty find more inspiration. Zachariah has a fascinating story of little consequence to the film, about how he and his wife decades ago went on a serial killer killing spree, gorily offing renowned American killers including Zodiac. His wife left him, however, for getting too soft.
As for the ladies, they have actually no bearing on the movie at all. Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko amount to wasted talents, which is only bothersome because of the marketing (or, I suppose, if you’re a hardcore feminist).
The four main players, however, give some of the best turns of their careers. Rockwell has never been funnier playing his cocky persona. Billy is so blissfully and purposefully ignorant of reality and never lacks for surprises. Harrelson, having played many an oddball and many a hard-ass, effectively blends both in Charlie. But it’s Walken who has one of his best roles in ages. Hans has all his marbles; he’s even a sweetheart, he just plays it abnormally cool in certain situations. Whereas Marty overreacts to the danger this wild premise brings, Hans handles it as if he expected it. Consequently, his humorous lines and moments really cut the tension.
Somehow, McDonagh makes “Seven Psychopaths” completely hysterical and off-the-wall crazy without completely shattering its believability. The characters, though psychopaths each in their own way, are carefully grounded and humanized. McDonagh gives them each something we can connect to emotionally, something we can identify with, in spite of their irrational quirks. The film occasionally takes some sharp turns into eye-opening dramatic territory, but it doesn’t result in the jarring tonal nightmare you would expect that to yield from lesser auteurs.
And there’s still this whole other stratosphere that the film enters in the screenplay within a screenplay context. Marty sets out at the beginning to write a film about peace and love that features psychopaths and violence, or something completely oxymoronic to that affect, and McDonagh finds a way (in his interpretation), to make that happen.
“Seven Psychopaths” seems likely to face a fate similar to “In Bruges” — not a whole lot of renown amongst the general public, but heaps of praise from those who ingest films on a regular basis. This one definitely has more appeal (more stars, set in Los Angeles, etc.), but both films have similar sensibilities. McDonagh has a real knack for playing around with cliches and expectations. He twists them around into something delightfully unexpected that despite seemingly outwardly silly, is quite meaningful, shocking and doubtlessly entertaining.
Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson