Seven Psychopaths Review [TIFF 2012]

Marty (Colin Farrell) is having trouble writing his next screenplay. He has the name, ‘Seven Psychopaths’, and he has a few ideas, but he does not have much else. His friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is trying to help, but he is also busy with his job, stealing dogs for Hans (Christopher Walken). They return them of course, but not before taking a tidy profit from the victims. Unfortunately, Billy kidnaps the wrong dog one day, owned by high ranking Mafioso Charlie (Woody Harrelson), and it’s not long before all of their lives are in danger.

Frequently violent and often hilarious, Seven Psychopaths is just as bizarre and crazed as writer/director Martin McDonough’s first film In Bruges, but it is also incredibly different as well. Taking its cues from movies like The Player and Tropic Thunder, the film is a meta tale where the struggles of the screenwriting process are written directly into the script.

This pays off in hilarious ways (many of them staggeringly dark), and allows for rapid fire insight. Of course, these are elements that we could pick out as an audience, but the film lays them out rather precisely and intricately here so there are no doubts for what he is going for. It also makes for a more accessible film than In Bruges, and one that has scenes filled with some of the wildest fun I have had watching a film in a long time.

Much as I assumed they would, Harrelson and Walken are absolutely brilliant in their performances. They are both equally hilarious and poignant in all of their scenes. They bring out the best in the rest of the cast, and are always one step ahead of everyone else. While they get many of the best lines, they also get some of the most intense moments in the film as well. It is an interesting balance, and one that should not work whatsoever. But instead, it pays off in each and every scene. Kudos on McDonough for having the foresight to bring in two of Hollywood’s best character actors to play here, and knowing just the right time to restrain.

But for how great they are, the film is truly dominated by Rockwell in one of his most unhinged and demented performances to date. From the moment he enters the frame and opens his mouth, he literally owns the screen. You are just hooked on every word, every action and reaction. He is just letting loose, and never once stopping to see how everyone else is doing.

It is not that he is careless; he just is playing the character so wild and voracious that he simply does not have time to wait around for everyone else. He chews scenery left and right, and runs circles around almost everyone in the cast. He is crazed and insane, and never once do we think anything different. If he was not already so recognizable, I would say this would be his star making role. As it is, this may just be the role that launches him into the stratosphere.

But not everything is great.

My main gripe with Seven Psychopaths is the third act. For the first two acts, the film is wild, exhilarating and just plain fun. And then much like In Bruges before it, the last act takes a hairpin turn and slows down to the point of ridiculousness. The tone is thrown off entirely, and rather suddenly, the film ventures out of dark comedy and into the realm of something else entirely.

While the rapid change-up was jarring when I saw In Bruges, it still made sense. Here, the meta structure of the film only makes the change completely ludicrous. McDonagh may think his drastic move is insightful, but it comes off as pretentious and far removed from the rest of the story. Sure, some of the dry wit still remains – but that is about it. It irrevocably changes the film, and nearly ruined the entire experience for me.

What propels the third act to being so lackluster is its reliance on the script’s meta nature. Shortly after the film begins and Farrell begins working on the screenplay, it becomes very clear that almost every line will refer to a later theme or event. It is ingenious at first, much like most satires are. But its amusement wears thin about halfway into the film, and by the third act when one character sets up everything that is to come, I rolled my eyes and wished they turned to the audience and yelled “Sike!”

Does McDonagh really think he is fooling anyone into not noticing he points out the shortcomings of his own script? Were these notions deliberate and on purpose, or did he simply run out of ideas and think he was being clever by adding them all in? The film never seems to answer any of these questions, and it becomes downright infuriating even attempting to look for them. It cries of a number of wasted opportunities to really make something of itself, instead of merely basking in its own charm and wit.

Despite being credited as the lead, Farrell is basically a supporting player to the vast array of offbeat actors playing the psychopaths. A thinly veiled reference to McDonough himself, Farrell plays Marty as the straight man and suffers as a result. He has no indistinguishable traits and has no real enthusiasm. He simply exists on-screen to help hold the plot and its characters together. His one piece of dimensionality, his alcoholism, is used as a crutch throughout the picture, but it never really does anything for the character. It simply exists to make him just as odd as everyone else on screen. Farrell seems content phoning the performance in, but he looks visibly held back in most of the scenes. But then again, I am writing this about the actor who plays most of his scenes against Rockwell and Walken. So there is a good chance that will be the excuse for his abnormally disappointing portrayal here.

But then, a good majority of the cast feels undercut. Olga Kurylenko, Abbie Cornish and Gabourey Sidibe are all featured in the marketing and trailers for the film quite prominently. But they factor into less than fifteen minutes of screen time between the three of them. Their purpose? I still do not know.

Linda Bright Clay fares a little better as Hands’ wife Myra, but she too serves very little purpose outside of helping further characterize Hans. Tom Waits is fun in his role as the very obviously unwell Zachariah (he carries a white rabbit around much the same way a female socialite would her tiny dog), but after one major scene, he is basically never heard from again. We can say each of these actors is basically saddled with extended cameos in the film, but they come off as major players in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps McDonough ran out of ideas for them too?

And I say all of this without even mentioning the subplot involving a Viet Cong soldier playing by Long Nguyen, preparing for revenge against the Americans who destroyed his family. What does that have to do with anything? I am not sure even McDonough knows the answer to that.

It may sound like I hated Seven Psychopaths, but it is very much the opposite. I wanted to love and adore it, but I came away more than a little disappointed. The film just has so much promise and so many great lines and scenes (including one small cameo from a lauded character actor, who is brooding, terrifying and darkly hilarious all at once). But a large portion of that promise is squandered away and totally wasted. It genuinely feels like McDonough had two-thirds of the script done, and then simply ran out of ideas until someone suggest he physically write those feelings into the actual script. It likely read better on paper than it does on film.

Anyone looking for the zany breath of fresh air In Bruges provided will undoubtedly be disappointed. But for anyone prepared for an imperfect picture filled with laughs and exorbitant violence, you may end up surprised by what does work so well in Seven Psychopaths.

Seven Psychopaths Review [TIFF 2012]

I wanted to love it, but Seven Psychopaths is merely a clever film chock full of wasted potential. It looks and acts a lot better than it actually is.