[12 October 2012]
At one of the quieter moments in Seven Psychopaths, Hans (Christopher Walken) tells his friend Marty (Colin Farrell) that the female characters in his screenplays are horrendous. Each gets only a few minutes of terrible dialogue before ending up dead. “It’s a tough world for women,” Marty stammers.
This is a multifaceted joke for Seven Psychopaths’ screenwriter and director, Martin McDonagh, who indeed makes sure that none of his female characters speaks an intelligent line or escapes suffering grievous bodily harm. One could argue that purposeful clichés are only worth citing if they help to unpack some of the prejudices or lazy thinking that gave rise to those clichés. Otherwise, it’s just the same old garbage with a smirk.
One could also argue that Seven Psychopaths is often so busy commenting on itself that it can’t remember to get back to the business of story. A jumbled series of sharply acted comedic episodes that never quite gels, it’s built on a premise that’s about as flimsy as it gets: Marty, feeling blocked in his writing, is pulled into criminal escapades by his twitchy buddy Billy (the great, great Sam Rockwell) when the latter’s habit of kidnapping dogs and returning them for the reward gets them in danger with Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a pop-eyed gangster who loves his little Shih Tzu more than he loves his .45 automatic. And Charlie likes his .45 a lot.
Getting by in LA, Marty has been trying to write a screenplay he’s titled Seven Psychopaths, but he’s having trouble coming up with intriguingly crazy characters. He drinks and frets while Billy jabbers… until Billy pulls out a newspaper headline concerning a serial killer who’s been knocking off mid-level Mafiosi and the occasional yakuza. Maybe this guy can serve as inspiration for one of Marty’s psychopaths?
A few stumbling developments later, and Marty and Billy are headed out to the desert in their giant old Detroit sled of a car – everybody drives those things in this film, it’s all ersatz Americana like the roots-country soundtrack – with Billy’s buddy Hans. They take peyote under the stars and develop a camaraderie around the campfire. At this point Billy reveals that he has a particular ending in mind for Marty’s movie, one that involves a loud and fiery final shoot-out in a cemetery. And while Marty is still fighting to complete his script, Billy’s gonzo-hyped soliloquy on his own fantasy, complete with a flamethrower-wielding Vietcong soldier, exploding heads, and a sopping-wet, braless Abbie Cornish getting Sam Peckinpah-ed in a cemetery, is one of Seven Psychopaths’ highlights.
McDonagh has always written with an acid wit and mischievous cackle. His impressively bloody plays and films offer and also explore violence in extremis, the darkness both leavened and highlighted by the (male) killers’ pragmatic embrace of their fates. He also understands that it’s more interesting to listen to a couple gangsters talk shop than it is to see them in action. In Bruges is about a couple of hit men on the run, exiled by their bosses to a dull little town and getting on each other’s nerves as they complain about it. In such exchanges and in ultra-violent moments, the movie keeps sight of the two men’s humanity.
That perspective is almost entirely lacking in Seven Psychopaths. That’s not to say it isn’t often sublimely hilarious, with Rockwell and Walken in particular doing their loony best to keep the ramshackle affair going, somehow without resorting to overacting. A wry Tom Waits pops by while stroking an adorable little bunny, and Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt appear in a sharp, funny homage to their Boardwalk Empire characters.
But the film feels almost twitchy when nobody’s life is in immediate mortal danger, like it’s impatient to get to the next spectacle. Because of that, some should-be worthwhile tangents get lost in a film-within-a-film haze and rampant bloodletting (razors to the neck, a crossbow bolt to the temple, knives to the hands, and many bullets slamming through heads). By the time Billy points out that the rules of the film shootout dictate that “You can’t let the animals die, just the women,” this movie is aping what it might have been critiquing.