I would have had higher expectations for Seven Psychopaths had I taken the time to realize it’s by the director/writer of In Bruges, a very good film nominated for best original screenplay at the 2009 Academy Awards.
While the misleading trailer portends a mindless shoot-’em-up, Seven Psychopaths turns out to be a charmingly offbeat film that takes the attitudes that spawn such tedious movies and subverts them to entertaining and thought-provoking effect. Director Martin McDonagh should be a familiar name to fans of Tampa Bay theater — his acclaimed plays The Pillowman and The Lieutenant of Inishmore have been staged by Jobsite Theater. Here, in his third film, McDonagh confidently captures the workaday existence of L.A. — one stripped of glamour and populated by oddballs. Not so different from the Los Angeles rendered by the Coen brothers in The Big Lebowski.
Colin Farrell, star of In Bruges, plays Marty, a screenwriter (and natural-born Irishman) who’s battling the bottle, a crutch that draws frequent blunt and unwanted criticism from his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell). Where Marty is serious and dour, Billy is aggressive and carefree, and the juxtaposition drives much of the casual humor that results from their interactions. Marty is struggling to write a screenplay that has a title — Seven Psychopaths — in search of a story. While he’s not sure what shape it will take, Marty knows he doesn’t want his film to glorify violence, a reluctancee that irks Billy. As Marty endeavors to find the words for his unformed concept, Billy earns his bread as a dog-napper. He casually absconds with pooches in broad daylight, and regally attired partner Hans (Christopher Walken) plays the role of the good Samaritan who reluctantly accepts reward money from the grateful owners.
When Billy ends up taking the beloved Shih Tzu of a violent gangster named Charlie (Woody Harrelson, combining genuine menace with comic vulnerability), Billy, Marty and Hans find themselves marked men. Soon, the three are camping together in the desert while on the lam from Charlie and his violent but none-too-bright thugs. Intertwined with their stories are those of the Jack of Diamonds — a serial killer targeting mobsters — and other “psychopaths” influencing Marty’s screenplay, including one played indelibly by Tom Waits.
Adding to the rich, layered feel is Billy’s treatment of their circumstances as the kind of movie he would like Marty’s Seven Psychopaths to be. Through these characters and some imagined scenarios, McDonagh undercuts the culture's obsession with cold-blooded killers. In one key bit of dialogue, Hans offers that psychopaths, however fascinating they may initially present themselves, are ultimately tiresome. It is all the more delicious that these words come from Walken, an actor known for playing his share of psychopaths, and whose arrestingly deadpan delivery and expressive eyes bring depth to his role as a religious man with a harrowing past.
Fast, funny and thought-provoking, Seven Psychopaths plays like a deconstruction of the action-movie mindset. Seven Psychopaths deserves repeat viewings, each one certain to reveal additional layers.