When writer/director Martin McDonagh’s first feature film, In Bruges, hit screens back in 2008, it came on like a cinematic force of nature, a wildly creative, pitch black, pathos-driven comedy fueled by a fresh, exhilarating artistic voice. The film simply floored me, and remains one of my very favorite works of the new millennium.
His second feature, Seven Psychopaths, has been a long time coming, but is absolutely worth the wait. If the film isn’t as morally provocative as Bruges, it’s just as smart and insightful, and quite a bit funnier to boot. McDonagh fully engages his playful side here, crafting a daffy metatextual escapade filled to burst with spectacular, vivid characters. I would love to see McDonagh continue exploring more serious dramatic material in the future, but there is nothing wrong with a healthy dose of fun, and Seven Psychopaths offers entertainment at its sharpest and most perceptive.
McDonagh’s mind games begin right off the bat, as we meet protagonist Marty (Colin Farrell), a struggling screenwriter who has come up with a great title for his next film: “Seven Psychopaths.” Marty loves the title, but he has only thought of one psychopath so far – a Buddhist psychopath, who abhors violence and does not kill, so is not, therefore, much of a psychopath at all – and needs to come up with six more. He imagines one or two himself. Some come from the headlines. Some he already knows, but doesn’t know he knows just yet. Some he meets when his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) and associate Hans (Christopher Walken) unknowingly kidnap a crime lord’s (Woody Harrelson) shih tzu, leading to a severely overblown revenge play.
Needless to say, Marty runs into a lot of psychopaths, fictional or otherwise, and McDonagh is unafraid to blur the lines between imagination and reality early and often. The increasingly madcap fallout of Billy and Hans’ dognapping scheme gives Marty more material for his screenplay than he knows what to do with, and as his film-within-a-film takes shape, McDonagh’s film gradually becomes a deft, loopy commentary on cinematic narrative construction.
McDonagh tackles topics as broad as the creation of character or inevitability of climaxes all the way down to less obvious – yet arguably more crucial – matters like the depiction of women and glorification of violence. Most of these points may be wrapped up in jokes, but McDonagh forces us to continue thinking through the laughter, pondering the actual, real-life application of what Marty and his friends learn or encounter along their journey. It’s an incredibly smart, deeply layered structural deconstruction, one I could easily see fueling long, rewarding discussions for film students or scholars.
No matter how much stock one wishes to put into McDonagh’s deeper interests, I think it can be universally agreed that his writing is magical. The number of characters and complexity of the story is such that McDonagh cannot fully show his hand until the second half, but until then, there is more than enough pleasure to be had from simply watching these characters interact. McDonagh’s dialogue is quick, snappy, and naturalistic, a trifecta few writers can organically pull off, and he defines each character with economy and precision. As in Bruges, there is a simple yet profound joy to his writing, one that comes through loud and clear in each character tic or stylistic flourish. And like the best writer/directors, McDonagh proves himself the best man to helm his own material, capturing the perfect sense of pace and energy and achieving a surprising amount of visual splendor along the way.
Above all else, his cast is second to none, and he even coaxes some truly tremendous performances out of actors who haven’t had a chance like this in years. Christopher Walken is simply marvelous, doing some of the most grounded, human work of his career. The funny voice we love him for is still there in spades, and used to great effect, but there’s a quiet, touching nuance to Walken’s performance that is simply captivating. Those who see Seven Psychopaths will definitely leave discussing Walken’s work with others, and the same, I imagine, goes for Tom Waits, who leaves a pretty remarkable comedic impression in a very small amount of screentime.
It’s Sam Rockwell, though, who walks away with the movie. There’s very little I can say about the character without risking spoilers, for Billy evolves in complex, manic leaps and bounds, developing from quirky best friend to the film’s centerpiece by the final act. This is the kind of role Rockwell thrives on, and he attacks the material with his trademark, relentless commitment. If CBS Films plays this one smart, I see little reason why Rockwell cannot be a legitimate Oscar contender; the film as a whole is probably not in the Academy’s oeuvre, but I can certainly imagine voters latching onto a performance as keen and varied as this.
Given all the psychopaths in the cast, it’s easy to look past what excellent work Farrell does in the lead. Grounding a set of personalities this vast – I have yet to mention Harrelson’s performance, which is as delightfully unrestrained as one would hope – is a thankless task, but Farrell does it expertly. He and McDonagh have a very strong director/actor chemistry at this point, each emboldening the other in noticeable ways, and I look forward to where the partnership may lead them in the future.
Seven Psychopaths is by its very nature a difficult film to describe, and almost entirely elusive to the concept of ‘review.’ It thrives on the crazy and the unbelievable, and must therefore be experienced firsthand. That being said, it is not an alienating film – unless you have a low threshold for graphic violence, which McDonagh loves incorporating into jokes – and absolutely has the potential to be a crowd pleaser on multiple, equally effective levels. Give it a try, and odds are you’ll walk away pleased. If it’s not one of the year’s very best films, it’s certainly among the most enjoyable.