‘Seven Psychopaths’ Is Smart, If Slightly Self-Serving

As a playwright, Martin McDonagh has crafted several stage sensations. His Leenane and Aran Islands Trilogies earned him accolades and awards both in his home country of England and here in the US. He quickly followed said success with an Academy Award for his short film, Six Shooter. This lead to the full length feature In Bruges, which topped many critic’s lists as one of 2008’s best. Now comes his attempt at a “commercial” hit, the oddly named Seven Psychopaths. Though it trades in familiar territory for the fledgling filmmaker — gangsters, guns, and goofballs — it’s also a smart and witty ride through the life of an alcoholic writer and his menagerie of eccentric friends. Sometimes, it’s a bit too smarmy and self serving. At other instances, it’s just plain terrific.

Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) is having a hard time with his latest assignment, a script called Seven Psychopaths. Hoping to get some inspiration, he discusses the problems with actor cum dog stealing pal Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell). You see, this cur kidnapper works with a weird old man named Hans (Christopher Walken) who is using the money they make — they wait until the owners offer a reward and then return the pups, no questions asked — to help his terminally ill wife. For Billy, it’s part of a growing sociopathology. When the duo snatch the favored shih-tzu of a mean mobster named Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), he sends his henchmen out for revenge. Oddly enough, there’s a mysterious serial killer who targets such assassins, complicating matters. Still, Marty, Billy and Hans head for the hills… literally.

Like listening to an insane person outline the story of their life, you never quite know where Seven Psychopaths is going. At first, it looks like a crackerjack if equally crackpot crime caper. We have the masked mass murderer, the guys who procure other people’s pets, and the harried scribe stuck square in the middle. We think we are going to watch a standard seek and destroy, Costello discovering the identity of the perps and his heavies metering out the explosive lead payback. But within minutes, that plotline morphs into a sad bit of sentiment, Hans trying to help his beleaguered spouse die with dignity. Then Marty gets too friendly with the bottle. Then Billy wants to help write the screenplay (and may have some inside information on ‘psychopaths’ that could help). Then bullets fly. Then blood flows. And suddenly, our main trio is in the California desert, doing a bit of senseless soul searching.

Huh? Or maybe a better reaction would be “Ha-Ha-Ha!!!” McDonagh is such a clever writer, his dialogue and directions sparkle with such amazing clarity, that you can’t help but be impressed. Characters this cookie cutter shouldn’t be so intriguing and intelligent. They should be dumb and drooling, or even worse, worn out from all the cliched crap coming out of their mouths. But Seven Psychopaths only pays lip service to formula. Instead, it panders to a different kind of audience member, one well versed in the makings of this kind of movie without wanting the same old shoot outs and shout outs. Call this the anti-thriller, an action movie where the motivation of the characters is far more electrifying that any car chase or stand-off.

Instead, this is the kind of film which bristles with fascinating personality clashes. Marty and Billy come across as old buddies, yet they really don’t know much about each other. This is especially true when the various denouements begin. Similarly, Hans has the most intriguing backstory, his tale of woe and a previous life of crime acting as truth… or perhaps, myth. While doing research, Marty comes across a man played with oddball aplomb by Tom Waits. His story of love, larceny, and bloody revenge highlights and already scarlet tinged narrative. Death is a defining moment for many here. Costello hates it when his hitmen are killed off, but he is far more flummoxed by the possibility of his dog dying. Similarly, Hans’ wife is clearly terminal, yet both he and his stoic spouse seem to laugh in the face of such mortality.

As for McDonagh, he still has a ways to go before he can be considered a consummate director. He’s more like Kevin Smith, so capable at scriptwriting and resonate dialogue that all he has to do is make sure the camera is in focus and 90% of this job behind the lens is done. Sure, we bounce around in the storyline, flash forward and back within any real sense of structure. This isn’t Pulp Fiction, where the non-linear nature of things mandates a reimagining of everything we’ve seen. Instead, McDonagh seems to recognize his plot’s potential limitations, and avoids them by messing around with time and place. It doesn’t take away from his film. It just shows his still slightly novice chops.

The rest of the experience is entertaining in a brazen, batshit kind of way. Seven Psychopaths dares us to cheer for the bad guys, question anyone who claims they are good, and wonder aloud what’s real and what’s part of Marty’s literary process. In fact, we actually get a script reading of sorts, Billy and Hans joining in and offering their own unique ‘notes’ as the imaginary sequence mimics many of the moments we’ve already seen. It’s a trick, a mobieus strip statement about McDonagh’s purpose for this particular yarn. This is Barton Fink set within organized crime, a tale told by a blocked drunken idiot, often going nowhere while signifying some really surreal stuff. Since he stepped into the world of writing, Martin McDonagh has achieved the kind of success few can follow. Here’s hoping Seven Psychopaths make him a household name, and not just a critical darling. He’s already earned their praise. It’s the people’s turn to respond.

RATING 7 / 10