When it came out in 2008 I was a little less enthusiastic about Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges than many critics, perhaps because I wasn’t really expecting it to be as much of a comedy as it was and partly because I found its structure somewhat contrived. Still, I could tell that there was an interesting voice at its center and I came to like the film more upon reflection than I had while watching it. That film was one part dark comedy and one part straightforward crime film, you could come for one element but stay for the other and that made the film very accessible for broad audiences. McDonagh’s new film, Seven Psychopaths is a very different beast indeed. The film disposes of any pretense of “drama” or “straightforwardness” in favor of a balls out post-modern satire with a “fuck the world” attitude and a degree of irreverence that will leave many audiences completely baffled and a select few absolutely riveted and as I’m writing this I don’t quite know which camp I’m in.
Seven Psychopaths follows a Hollywood screenwriter named Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) who’s working on a film called “Seven Psychopaths” and is looking to the world for inspiration. His friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is trying to encourage him while running his illegal side business of kidnapping people’s dogs and then sending his elderly friend Hans (Christopher Walken) to collect the reward money. Unfortunately for all involved, Billy has kidnapped the wrong dog this time, the beloved Shih Tzu of a deranged and violent mob boss named Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson). This is the plot point that’s most heavily emphasized in the film’s advertising, but that’s really only the tip of the iceberg of the film’s absurdist twists. There’s a masked man who walks around killing mafiosos and leaving behind playing cards to mark his kills. There are characters introduced for seemingly no reason except to immediately kill them off. There are seemingly tangential side-stories about such material as: Quaker revenge sagas, Viet Cong terrorists, and Zodiac Killer killing killers. It’s not exactly an easy movie to summarize.
First and foremost, one needs to know that this movie is extremely meta. It follows in the tradition of movies like Adaptation and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which openly dissect Hollywood screenwriting clichés while at the same time taking part in them. Like Adaptation this film is sort of being written by its central character as it goes along, but this isn’t as rigid as Charlie Kaufman’s film which was careful to follow a clear internal logic. Seven Psychopaths has more of an anarchist spirit and it’s not trying to pretend that any of this insanity literally happened to the film’s actual writer. Characters in the film openly talk to the film’s screenwriter protagonist about how they “want this movie to end” and often his screenplay complies. Consequently, a lot of the film’s characters act in ways that are very peculiar. It’s strongly implied that Colin Farrell’s character is simply not a very good writer and that this influences a lot of the strange happenings and tangents and it’s hard to tell just how much of the film actually exists in some sort of reality and how much is simply the work of the screenplay that’s being written by the character.
Anyone who saw In Bruges knows that McDonagh does have an ear for dialogue which was likely honed by his years of work as a playwright in Ireland. McDonagh fills his film with memorable lines that are steeped in irony, irreverence, and blunt political incorrectness. They’re really well-crafted and interesting quotes and I admired a lot of them from a distance, but oddly, I found a lot of these lines to be funnier in theory than in practice. I wasn’t laughing out loud much while I watched Seven Psychopaths and neither was the audience I watched it with. Additionally the characters are written so broadly that it was really hard to get much of a grip on any of them. The film is filled with talented actors that seem to be doing everything that they were supposed to be doing, and yet none of them were really able to give these people much humanity. You know how Christopher Walken has a habit of showing up in bit parts, giving bizarre speeches, and then leaving? Everyone is doing that in this movie, including Walken himself, who is even stranger than usual.
So, what can I say about this movie in final analysis? Well, if nothing else the film is rarely formulaic, and whenever it is formulaic it immediately mocks itself for being formulaic. I had no idea where the film was going for much of its running time and it made a number of twists that were completely out of left field. There were moments where I felt like I was in the presence of a brilliant piece of post-modern cinema, but then there were a number of other moments that made me feel like I was in the presence of a complete mess. He makes some interesting points about mainstream cinema and makes them in an entertaining way, and yet none of these points are wildly original and I’m not sure that all the film’s chaos was really necessary in order to make them. I admired what McDonagh was doing, but at the same time I don’t feel like I can follow him down the road he’s walking. I suspect this film is going to get a substantial cult following and if the film sounds like it’s your cup of tea you might as well give it a go, but this is decidedly not going to be for everyone, know what you’re getting into.
**1/2 out of Four