Some audiences will be shocked at the graphic, gruesome ways murder is served up in Seven Psychopaths. But there will probably be some, like myself, who'll be shocked by how much the movie gets away with oozing obvious contempt for the Hollywood industry and its predictable practices. This flick is proof that studio execs never know what they've green-lighted until the movie is finished.
The second feature from writer/ director/ playwright/ Anglo-Irishman Martin McDonagh, Psychopaths continues in the same deconstructive, profanely funny vein he brought to his 2008 debut In Bruges. It gleefully guts the crime-movie tropes we've become accustomed to.
The movie begins with two suave-looking hit men (Boardwalk Empire fans will be giddy with the casting of these roles) cracking shit and talking wise—pure Tarantino archetypes—before a masked gunman walks up to them and blows holes in their heads. The killer, who spends most of the movie offing mid-level hoodlums, could be a stand-in for McDonagh, but if so, it's not his only surrogate in the film: Colin Farrell, who gave his best performance starring in McDonagh's last film, plays a hard-drinking Irish screenwriter named—wait for it!—Marty. The movie version of Marty is trying to come up with the septet of killers for his screenplay, also called Seven Psychopaths.
It's a good thing his action-loving actor buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell) is around to bounce ideas off. Billy also has a dog-kidnapping business with Zen-like, cop-hating Christian Hans (Christopher Walken, in his own world as always), who uses the money to pay for his ailing wife's medical bills. The bullets start flying when a very unstable gangster (Woody Harrelson) comes gunning for them after they kidnap his beloved Shih Tzu.
Yes, it sounds like the sort of ridiculous setup Guy Ritchie would fashion a film out of in a heartbeat. But this merely leads the way for McDonagh to show off his meta skills. As Farrell's frustrated screenwriter bitches about writing a film with some substance, Psychopaths uses most of its screen time exposing the sensationalistic emptiness of contemporary pulp cinema by exposing its own sensationalistic emptiness. A movie that openly admits its own female characters (which includes Abbie Cornish and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko) are mostly nothing but poorly written, easily discarded eye candy, Seven Psychopaths virtually comes off like a freewheeling, Charlie Kaufman-written version of a scuzz movie.
As heady, unpredictable and compulsively watchable as this movie is, I'm still unconvinced all of it works. As often happens with films that have a narrative this ambitious and laboriously paced, some of Psychopath's ideas are more laid-out than others. Despite the blood-spattered action that goes down (including a bunny-carrying Tom Waits who tells Farrell a tale that is a gorier version of Natural Born Killers), the audience may be more weirded out when Marty, Billy and Christian hide in the desert to kill time until the climax of the movie happens.
Much like in his superior In Bruges, McDonagh primarily addresses how these types of movies not only never take death seriously, but rarely provide characters who nobly, fearlessly welcome it. Violence may be served up in copious amounts, but McDonagh also creates characters who have no qualms going gently into that good night. As much of a cinematic clusterfuck of carnage Seven Psychopaths is, I'm glad the movie exists.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A great escape."