“You’re the one [who] thought psychopaths were so interesting. They get sort of tiresome after a while.”
That’s Hans (Christopher Walken), rubbing it in with his screenwriter friend Martin (Colin Farrell) as they await their demise at the hand of a deranged killer.
Seven Psychopaths is the next major release from writer/director Martin McDonagh. Like his In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths is an action/comedy that toys with masculine Hollywood conventions.
It’s probably no coincidence that the screenwriter character is named Martin, as he seems to be a stand-in for McDonagh. Martin’s current screenplay is called “Seven Psychopaths.” He’s stuck with the title, but Martin is tired of writing within masculine Hollywood conventions. He’d rather write something life-affirming, something about love and peace... maybe something Buddhist.
Martin’s fictional screenplay and McDonagh’s real screenplay seem to be fighting for control of the movie. Martin’s desire for peace is counterbalanced by Hollywood’s demands for iconic tough guys, guns galore, violence, posturing, and threats. We can’t know if Martin was able to find a balance, but McDonagh manages to straddle the line by choosing characters who have mistaken Hollywood for reality in their own lives. So although Seven Psychopaths is missing a car chase, there is an explosion, and there are two climactic shootouts, thanks to the unpredictable characters. There is only a little Buddhism.
Calling All Psychopaths
Martin’s friend Billy (last name Bickle, like Travis — played by Sam Rockwell) would really like to help write Martin’s screenplay. Billy suggests a psychopath from the headlines: the Jack of Diamonds killer targets Mafiosi who are themselves on hit missions — maybe Martin could use that in his script. It’s better than Martin’s idea for a psychopath: something about a Quaker who haunts the man who killed his son. They need more psychopaths, so Billy takes out an ad in an L.A. newspaper soliciting stories from psychopaths who would like to be featured in a movie. Just contact Martin at his home address, or call him up: here’s the number.
Billy’s day job is a business collaboration with Hans (Walken). Their “business” is to surreptitiously kidnap the dogs of the wealthy, then wait for the reward posters to appear. Their latest mark is a shih tzu owned by Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a short-tempered crime boss who really loves his little dog. Without going into too much detail, I can say that Charlie’s hunt for the dognappers leads to Hans and Martin’s expected demise, and both of the climactic shootouts.
The characters and situations are larger than life, and they’re played for laughs. But McDonagh manages to work some humanity into them, too. Martin finds Billy’s diary, which is comically unhinged. But there’s also a note of desperation and loneliness that wins Martin’s pity for his friend.
Clever for Good
Seven Psychopaths is a scattered film. It starts with a case of writer’s block. With few exceptions ( Adaptation, Shakespeare’s 76th sonnet), works about writer’s block tend to be unfocused, self-indulgent, and self-referentially gimmicky. The script indeed pulls a few cheap tricks such as when Martin declares that his movie will, from now on, consist only of dialogue between the male characters (which happens in the real film), or when Tom Waits’ psychopath demands a title card at the end of the fictional film. These tricks might satisfy a blocked writer, or an audience that mistakes “clever” for “good.” Indeed my ready-to-laugh preview audience probably would have been satisfied with a shell of Seven Psychopaths.
But McDonagh adds muscle and flesh to the skeleton of his idea. So although the second half really is all dialogue, some of that dialogue spawns fantasies that allow McDonagh to give an audience the Hollywood shootout it wants. A Vietnamese psychopath, introduced for laughs and left as a dangling plot thread, ends up merging with Walken’s story in a way that makes them both fit more tightly into the rest of the movie.
Like the title “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, “Seven Psychopaths” both embraces the visceral fun of violent Hollywood buddy films while at the same time belittling the intellectual content of “other” violent Hollywood buddy films. Somehow, McDonagh manages to have it both ways.