I was quite excited about this one. Longtime readers might remember me burbling on a while ago about how much I love writer/director Martin McDonagh’s previous film In Bruges, and I’ve got a real soft spot for self-aware Charlie Kaufman style absurdities about blocked writers like Adaptation and Synecdoche, New York, so the announcement of Seven Psychopaths, in which a Hollywood screenwriter finds himself sucked into a bizarre gangster caper while struggling to get his high concept script about serial killers off the ground, had me positively salivating. As it turns out, the new film is something of a glorious mess that doesn’t quite manage to pull off the challenging job of getting the audience to invest in all these oddball characters who always seem to be behaving like they know they’re in a movie, but it’s sure as hell pretty funny, and if the plot and motivations of everyone are both sometimes a touch convoluted they’re certainly never predictable.
Colin Farrell gets the lead role as Martin, whose efforts to come up with enough sufficiently interesting disturbed individuals to justify his title Seven Psychopaths are hampered both by a burgeoning alcohol problem and his enthusiastic, if not exactly over-thoughtful, friend Billy, who has a side-line in kidnapping dogs before returning them to their owners to collect the reward. Billy’s aided in this enterprise by Hans, a dignified Christian pensioner who’s trying to raise funds for his wife’s cancer operation. Things get complicated when Billy picks up a shih tzu belonging to a local crime boss at the same time as Martin gets kicked out by his long-suffering girlfriend. Martin is forced to look after the dog, but events don’t play out anything like you’d expect, largely because both Billy and Hans seem to be living according to their own private codes, neither of which pays much regard to such basic instincts of self-preservation as fear and caution. While this is going on Martin is harvesting tales of legendary psychopaths from various quarters, and dreamlike, though often horribly bloody, reconstructions of their dark exploits frequently punctuate the main action.
Farrell’s character and a couple of token girlfriends aside, McDonagh has populated his film with a gallery of weirdos and pleasingly he’s been able to round up some of Hollywood’s most prominent portrayers of nut-jobs to play them: Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits, and even the venerable Harry Dean Stanton appears in one sequence. Sometimes the movie plays like a Tarantino tribute, with stand-offs littered with inappropriately casual banter. Sometimes it gets unexpectedly quiet and meditative, as Martin bemoans all the violence and strains to create something deeper and more meaningful. The film always seems to be commenting on itself, even forestalling potential criticisms by putting lines about how thin the roles for its women are into the mouths of its characters. It’s a symptom of this too-clever-by-half approach that Billy is given the surname Bickle and is seen at one point in front of a mirror doing the Robert de Niro “you talkin’ to me?” routine from Taxi Driver – you might enjoy getting the reference, but it doesn’t really help the film*.
Fortunately, McDonagh has enough of a gift for killer lines of dialogue and smart plot swerves that he more or less gets away with what might otherwise be a hopeless melange of self-indulgence. He’s also got some highly watchable people on screen: Farrell’s role is a bit thankless as he’s mainly there to provide some kind of yardstick of normality, but Rockwell gibbers winningly as a volatile wild card, Harrelson exudes full-on menace when he’s not pining pathetically for his lost dog and Walken is just outstanding as someone who’s decided to never compromise his hard-won poise and won’t even put his hands up when a mob is pointing guns at him. It’s also worth going to see the film just to get to hear Tom Waits croak out one of his tall tales of madness and regret. Seven Psychopaths may be often too far up its own conceits for its own good but it’s never boring and it’s never dumb. Great soundtrack too, particularly when Half Man Half Biscuit’s immortal Trumpton Riots kicks in.
* I saw this at an unusually lively screening, the audience of which seemed to contain not only members of a production company involved with the film, who cheered at some of the start and end credits and were mumbling appreciatively at certain points, but also a couple of over-refreshed gentlemen who at times were engaging quite loudly, Rocky Horror style, with the on-screen dialogue. I’d normally find this kind of thing intolerable, but given the self-referential nature of the film it actually felt pretty appropriate, as if the ambience of the movie had extended into the auditorium.