Review: Seven Psychopaths
October 26th 2012 · 0 Comments
Irish writer Martin McDonagh has found success and acclaim in all of his creative pursuits to date. Starting as a playwright, his work (like the delightfully horrifying “The Pillowman,” which won him a Lawrence Olivier Award) has been nominated for four Tonys. Moving to screenwriting and film directing in 2005, with the Oscar-winning short “Six Shooter,” McDonagh fell in love with the medium. His full-length followup, 2008’s criminally-underappreciated black comedy “In Bruges,” garnered multiple award nods, including an Oscar nomination for the script. McDonagh has shown a deft hand with the difficult balancing act necessary for effective gallows humor, and that experience has led into his latest film in the genre, “Seven Psychopaths.” McDonagh’s latest effort is certainly as dark and funny as his fans have come to expect, but a mélange of bizarre characters and an overly-ambitious script may leave some viewers cold.
To an extent, “Seven Psychopaths” is a heavily-fictionalized, self-reflexive piece on McDonagh’s own difficulty writing a screenplay about a septet of crazed murderers (somewhat similar to Charlie Kaufman’s difficulties penning “Adaptation”). Colin Farrell stars as the author’s stand-in, Marty, who is struggling to write his script while contending with a drinking problem, an adversarial girlfriend and an erratic best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell). Billy, along with his pal Hans (Christopher Walken), runs a simple scam in which they slyly kidnap pets and then return them to their owners for petty cash rewards. Unfortunately, Billy has targeted the beloved Shih Tzu of crazed mobster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who will leave as many bodies in his wake as necessary to ensure the safe return of his dog. Add to the mix an enigmatic assassin who targets mob enforcers, a vengeful former Viet Cong with a cache of explosives, and a grizzled chap who once travelled the country executing infamous serial killers (played by the inimitable Tom Waits), and the obligatory desert showdown has plenty of fireworks in store.
If it sounds somewhat Tarantino-esque, that’s likely intentional. McDonagh seems to be at least partly interested in deconstructing the violent crime drama (and there is plenty of blood and gore on display, though it is almost always played for laughs). There’s much more to the film than that, however. Perhaps mirroring McDonagh’s own confusion over the direction of his story, Marty wants his screenplay to be lurid and bloody, but also uplifting and somehow life-affirming. Marty declares partway through that he intends to set up a traditional gun-heavy revenge flick, but then switch to a film in which characters just go camping and talk to each other for the remainder, and we get all of that in some extended philosophizing between Marty, Billy and Hans. Of course, we also get the bloody finish in which few characters survive. If it sounds like a bit of a mess, that’s because the plot is straining in so many directions at once.
While the film’s ambition can be a strength, because it does produce some novel action that effectively subverts genre conventions, it also causes wild swings in tone and pacing. Further, with so many characters, there is almost too much to keep track of at any given time. Fortunately, the cast is reasonably solid, with Farrell and Walken as the main stalwarts who hold the tangled mess together. Sam Rockwell, who has done some very fine, subtle work over the years, is perhaps a bit too manic here, and Harrelson’s character is one-dimensional and his performance rather one-note. Tom Waits’ performance is a bright spot in just a few scenes. Overall, there are just barely more hits than misses to keep enough viewers patiently along for the ride, and McDonagh’s dialogue––while not quite as snappy as the best of his previous film––is undeniably entertaining. The cinematography is quite arresting as well.
On balance, “Seven Psychopaths” is an ambitious, unorthodox film that is likely to divide viewers. There’s just so much going on that it feels like the screenplay suffered a few too many rounds of revision, losing a critical sense of focus along the way. McDonagh fans hoping for another “In Bruges” may well be disappointed by the meanderings of the plot, but those with patience and realistic expectations will likely be pleased.