Tag Archives: Martin McDonagh

Seven Psychopaths: no animals were harmed

SevenPsychopaths

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.

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The Guard: good cop, lazy answering-the-door-in-his-underpants cop

The Guard is a cheerfully brash and irreverent comedy thriller from Ireland that manages to ring a few changes on the hoary old odd-couple detective routine. Brendan Gleeson has the starring role as Gerry Boyle, a long-serving, sardonic and resolutely non-impressed Garda sergeant whose normal day-to-day routine in the sparsely populated Connemara region consists of not much more than a few lattes in working hours and some beers and the odd call-girl in the evening, and he’s fantastic: world-weary without being embittered, and with a penchant for dropping staggeringly politically incorrect comments into delicate exchanges. The plot kicks in when the activities of some local drug barons attract the attention of the FBI, who send over bright and straight-laced agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) to intercept a multi-million dollar cocaine consignment, and inevitably conflict arises between his by-the-book methods and Boyle’s somewhat more informal approach.

This is not a film that takes itself very seriously. The plot and its mechanics are predictable and perfunctory and director/writer John Michael McDonagh and his cast clearly aren’t too bothered about it. It’s also true that, one or two flashy camera moves aside, the direction and editing of the film is pretty basic and sometimes decidedly choppy, with a lot of abrupt cuts and not much establishing of location or context (the start and end of the showing I attended were particularly sudden, and the print showed an unusual amount of grain, to the extent that it seemed like it was a dodgy pirate copy of the film that was being screened), and the colour schemes and lighting used throughout seemed designed to be deliberately jarring. None of this however matters too much, or detracts from the pleasure to be had here: the strength of The Guard is in its characterisation and its many highly enjoyable scenes featuring foul-mouthed yet witty dialogue. The closest point of reference for me is the unassailably wonderful In Bruges, also featuring Brendan Gleeson delivering yards of gleefully obscenity-ridden script (and possibly non-coincidentally written and directed by Martin McDonagh, brother of John Michael). The Guard never really gets near the formal brilliance of In Bruges (after a while you realise that the scenario is so thin that you’re never really going to invest yourself in the characters) but in places it’s just as funny, and it sure doesn’t outstay its welcome. There are some good support performances here too: Cheadle does a good job with the thankless straight man role, and Liam Cunningham relishes his part as the loquacious gang boss with an improbable interest in philosophy, plus you get Mark Strong doing his hard-man-for-hire bit as a disaffected and haughty English thug who takes every opportunity to express his disdain for Ireland and America alike. A film destined to be entertaining folk after the pub closes for some time I think.

Why In Bruges may be the greatest film ever made

Some people go for Star Wars, or My Fair Lady, or Some Like It Hot, or Casablanca, when they’re looking for something familiar and reliably entertaining to have on sort of in the background as a kind of audio-visual tonic. Others who prefer their soothing to be peppered with profanity, a little light violence and some reassuringly brilliant one-liners might choose Life Of Brian, or Withnail & I, or The Big Lebowski. Right now, I’m finding that my comfort film of choice is In Bruges. I must have watched it half a dozen times in the last couple of years and it’s not getting any less funny, and I’m seriously starting to think that it may be one of the greatest films anyone’s ever made.

Quick alert: I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but will inevitably be going into bits of detail here and there. If you haven’t seen the film stop now and go and watch it. Honestly. It’s brilliant.

A bare description of In Bruges isn’t promising. Here we have two low-level hitmen who have been sent by their gangster boss to hole up in a bed and breakfast in the beautiful but not exactly buzzing medieval Belgian city after a job goes badly wrong. One of them, Brendan Gleeson’s Ken, is middle-aged and quietly quite pleased about having the opportunity to take in some culture and history – the other, Colin Farrell’s Ray, is younger and highly unimpressed by being forced to re-locate somewhere so far from any action. The first third or so of the film is mainly taken up by Ray’s desperate, but sometimes surprisingly successful, attempts to keep himself entertained and Ken’s increasing exasperation at Ray’s inability to keep a low profile. Eventually the plot thickens in ways that both arise naturally from the set-up and are completely unforeseeable, and we start seeing guns, stand-offs, chases and showdowns before the plot resolves itself elegantly and without unnecessary complications. Throughout the film pretty much every character drops four letter words and their cognates as if a prohibition on profanity was just around the corner.

So far, so Guy Ritchie. Sweary gangster films are not exactly a rarity, and most of the ones I’ve seen are wearying and cynical. In Bruges is however blessed with a script written by experienced playwright Martin McDonagh and Lord is it good: witty, pithy, surprising, free of clunky exposition and overabounding with deathlessly quotable lines. The actor Ralph Brown was once asked in an interview why he thought Withnail & I (in which he appeared as Danny the drug dealer) had achieved such resounding cult status and he replied to the effect that it was probably because “there are no crap bits in it” – the same applies to In Bruges. The first time you watch it you get a kick from the turns of the plot, the arresting dialogue and the believable, if somewhat heightened, characters and a second viewing is required to catch the details you might have missed because you were laughing so much the first. Thereafter, you’re familiar with the shape of it and the pleasure is more to do with anticipation: every new scene has you leaning forward, thinking “ooh, this is a good bit” – there’s absolutely no padding or drag in the thing at all.

It helps that the film is perfectly cast and that all the actors are up to the job of getting maximum mileage from the material they’re given. Colin Farrell’s CV is mixed to say the least (he’s often to be spotted in unappetising action films, seemingly as a low-rent substitute for Tom Cruise), but he nails the gormless, yet guilt-wracked, Ray perfectly. This character initially appears to be three parts naive thrill-seeker to one part sleekly efficient thug, but as the film progresses his inner turmoil is gradually exposed, and Farrell must be given credit for gaining the audience’s sympathy. In contrast, Brendan Gleeson cuts a reliable and avuncular figure as Ken, the voice of reason who appreciates the value of keeping one’s head down, but again this character is also eventually revealed to have a difficult inner conflict that will require a hard decision. The third lead is Ralph Fiennes’s ruthless and rat-like overlord Harry, who isn’t actually seen on screen until the second half of the film, but whose presence is felt throughout via an escalation of intimidating phone calls and messages. Harry could easily have been a one-note cliché, a variation on the terrifying Ben Kingsley psychopath from Sexy Beast, but yet again he’s given a moral framework, one that he’s bound to operate within despite the potentially extreme consequences to himself. This sense that the characters in the film are all following their own codes of honour, even if those codes are in some cases demonstrably warped, is one of the main factors that lift In Bruges above all the other possibly diverting, but ultimately empty, gangster flicks out there.

The other main reason you’ve got to see this film is the sheer quality of the dialogue. McDonagh puts words in his character’s mouths that will have you gasping with pleasure, whether it’s Ray’s gloriously unpolitically correct assessments of one of the best preserved medieval towns in Belgium, a local gun supplier’s obsession with nailing down the precise circumstances one should deploy the word “alcoves”, Ken’s referencing of Harry’s children during a dismissal of the possibility of his boss’s spiritual growth or Harry’s demand for highly specific information on Ray’s current lavatory status during a telephone call. I was going to use the actual quotes but on reflection that would be as bad as a plot spoiler. Plus I’d probably get taken down for obscenity.

McDonagh was smart enough to wangle himself the directing job as well, having recognised that that was where the bigger bucks were, and while In Bruges is first and foremost a film where people have conversations rather than a sumptuous visual epic it’s still worth noting his tasteful and restrained style. This could easily have been made as a dull sequence of two-shots, with the camera just sitting there taking in the actors reciting the script. Instead, McDonagh exploits his location to great effect. The film is set at Christmas, and the looming medieval buildings are shot to seem monumental and sometimes impassively threatening, and when the snow starts to fall the city really does fulfil the description Harry keeps ascribing to it as “a fairytale place”. There are occasional short sequences of local architecture and landmarks acting as buffers between dialogue scenes that really convey the sense of Bruges as a place slightly marooned out of time and these really help to add weight to Ray’s frequent diatribes against the place. This isn’t just a peerlessly funny film, it’s really quite a beautiful one too.

I guess I’ve gone on long enough and I haven’t even mentioned dwarves, blindness, irascible Canadians, overweight Americans or horse tranquillizers yet. Forget Citizen Kane and The Godfather and 12 Angry Men. In Bruges is where it’s at. It’s in Belgium.