The guys-with-guns genre is played out. Martin McDonagh made his bread and butter writing plays and making one terrific guys-with-guns movie in the form of In Bruges. What’s a guy to do but to follow it up with a self-indulgent, rambling meta-movie that points out exactly what is wrong with the genre?
Under almost anyone but McDonagh, Seven Psychopaths would be an insufferably smug mess of self-insertion and purposefully clichéd shenanigans. As McDonagh has made it, it’s pretty much all that… but also filled with undeniable laughs, great performances and cracking dialogue. It’s the “difficult second film” of legend, a mix of ambition, talent and juvenile lashing-out that proves to be as frustrating as it is irresistible.
Martin (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter working on an uncrackable nut of a project titled Seven Psychopaths; his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is a struggling actor who supplements his income by kidnapping dogs with eccentric Hans (Christopher Walken) and collecting the rewards. When they mistakenly kidnap the beloved Shih Tzu of a fearsome gangster (Woody Harrelson), they find themselves in a whole heap of trouble that will undeniably effect the identity of Martin’s seven psychopaths.
Careening wildly between potential sequences from the movie, graphic violence, roundabout conversations and analysis of screenplay structure, Seven Psychopaths comes across as part exorcism and part sandbox fantasy. On one hand, it has characters discussing how clichéd the situation they’re currently in is; on the other, it fully devotes 10 minutes of screen time to Tom Waits, with a pet bunny, explaining how he was a serial murderer of serial murderers in his youth. McDonagh wants to have his cake, eat it, make you eat yours and then force you to feel bad about it, often in the same scene.
His dance-puppets-dance act gives the film an off-putting artificiality and prevents you from actually caring about the characters (the terrible female characters are brushed off as being a problem Farrell struggles with). It’s the kind of screenplay that you imagine Hollywood speaking about in hushed tones, the one that says everything everyone is thinking but will never get made. Looks like it got made.
All of this would be fatal if it wasn’t for the fact that McDonagh remains a genuine talent, adept at weaving humor out of the darkest situations and surrounding himself with a foolproof cast (down to casting iconic character actor Harry Dean Stanton, the shortest path to my heart). For all of its flaws, Seven Psychopaths is enormously entertaining in its shamelessness. It’s the Southland Tales of guys-with-guns movies, a giant expulsion of insanity that’s as groan-worthy as it is fundamentally entertaining. The film is like a stream of puke after a night of revelry; I just hope McDonagh feels better now. ■
Seven Psychopaths opens Oct. 12