Saturday, October 27, 2012

Seven Psycopaths (***)

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh


There's a post-modern aspect to the screenplay of Seven Psychopaths that could be lost on a lot of viewers. A work of pretty extreme, complicated meta-fiction that seems to be a much more entertaining alternative to writer-director Martin McDonagh sitting in a room by himself and contemplating the direction of his career. But it seems like that was what McDonagh was doing here - well, at least that's what it seemed like his characters were doing for him. In the end, the complications compound atop each other until what we are left with is a highfalutin bloodbath, containing some fantastically oddball performances and the superb dialogue that we've come to expect from McDonagh.

To start, the film's protagonist is an Irish screenwriter named Marty (Colin Farrell), who alcoholism and overall lethargy has stunted his latest work, which he calls "Seven Psychopaths". He's starting to get some heat from his bosses and his stern girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish). Marty's best friend is Billy (Sam Rockwell), a high-strung dognapper who's eager to help Marty with his work - he's even ready to help write it with him, if only Marty would let him. Billy points him toward newspaper clippings of a serial killer named the Jack of Diamonds, whose been going around wiping out members of the Italian-American mafia and the Japanese Yakuza (he's very specific). That seems like the perfect psychopath to start a screenplay with and Marty agrees.

I mentioned Billy steals dogs. He does this with his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), a much older, very pensive man whose wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay) lies in the cancer ward of the local hospital. A lifetime crook, stealing dogs doesn't seem like that big of a deal in the long run. Especially when you consider that the owners are willing to pay so much to those who bring the dog back. I lot of profit for Billy and Hans, and not a whole lot of work. But when Billy steals the adorable little Shiz Tsu of the ruthless criminal, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), he's in for more than he realized. Charlie loves his dog, Bonnie, more than most people love their spouses, and there isn't enough violence-fueled rage in his body that can get Bonnie back to him quickly enough.

Marty gets dragged into Billy's scheme incidentally and then it's up to him, Billy and Hans to try and find a way to escape the situation without enlisting the unwavering mercilessness that Charlie is surely to bestow on them. All the while, Billy continues to try and bring Marty's spirits up by telling him that this whole situation is perfect fodder for his screenplay. As the three men continue to be part of moments of extreme violence, more and more the layers of Marty's unfinished work begins to become clearer and clearer. Then an eccentric man holding a bunny rabbit named Zachariah (Tom Waits) shows up on Billy's doorstep to tell his story of how he used to go around killing serial killers once upon a time. But by this time, he seems to fit right in with the rest of the group.

The various levels of self-reference within Seven Psychopaths is the entirety of the film's charm. I don't know how so many people of this level of insanity can all be so close to each other within the same county, but here they stand. The film goes back and forth between the story being told and the story that Marty (and then sometimes Billy, and then sometimes Hans) wants to tell. It doesn't do it with any trickery. McDonagh goes out of his way to tell you when something is the real Seven Psychopaths and the "Seven Psychopaths" that Marty hopes to finish soon. In a lot of ways, this film is a lot closer to Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation. than any ensemble thriller that I've ever seen, and I think McDonagh likes it that way.

You can count me as one of the biggest fans of McDonagh's first feature In Bruges which so brilliantly blended the tones of high comedy with the deep dark themes of violence and loyalty that spill throughout. This film contains that same level of humor, but its less centralized and more dependent on gory violence to keep the story going forward. More times than not, the action moves the story forward and not the characters, which is bound to happen when you try to shove in as many characters and flash backs and dream sequences, etc. as this film does. But as messy as the story may get at times, it still has McDonagh's wickedly slick dialogue that makes every scene extra punchy, getting the laughs while still allowing us to see into the character's true nature.

And then the work of the men in this cast also boast the occasionally floundering screenplay. Farrell, the only repeat performer from In Bruges, continues to show that the best way to lead a McDonagh picture is to let all the eccentrics steal the show. Rockwell's Billy is the most surprising of them all, and he may end up being the biggest psychopath of them all. Walken, the most esteemed screen actor of the bunch, brings a surprising amount of heart and warmth to Hans, as well as his usual effortless style of humor. Harrelson, the most bravura performance, brings so much restless anxiety to Charlie that it's almost believable that this man of extreme power would turn into a young girl when faced with the reality of losing his dog. A scene that has a stare down between Walken and Harrelson may be the film's best moment.

In Bruges is a film that gets much better with every viewing and may very well be one of the best films of the 2000s. I don't think Seven Psychopaths is quite as good - but that's not exactly saying anything too bad. This is a film that is so ironic that it actually comments on itself as it plays. So often we hear Marty talking about how he doesn't want a violent ending, yet this may be one of the most violent, non-torture-porn films of the year. We hear Hans criticize Marty for not writing good female characters, and the female characters in this film (besides Myra) aren't exactly great examples of well-rounded people. It gets very cute with itself that way. But it is very funny, and the performances of Harrelson, Walken and Rockwell all make this a highly watchable film.

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