Seven Psychopaths (2012): Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Abbie Cornish. Rated R for: Strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use. Running time: 110 minutes.
Rating: 3.5/4 stars
This may be a consequence of my utter lack of knowledge concerning overall trends in film, but I’m honestly not sure if we’ve ever had two films quite like these come out in the same year, much less within 6 months of each other. The first film I’m thinking of is Cabin In The Woods, still tied with Moonrise Kingdom as my favorite film of 2012 thus far. The second, obviously, is Seven Psychopaths. Before delving into an explanation of that particular train of thought, let’s talk about the Psychopaths first.
Seven Psychopaths is the third-ever film to be written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, and only the second to be feature-length (his first, Six Shooter, was an Oscar-winning short film). The respective middle child in this trio, and his first feature length, is the 2008 masterpiece In Bruges, currently my second favorite movie of all time. So, as you can imagine, I had considerably high expectations for his next project. Did I expect it to be on the same level of cinematic artistry as In Bruges? Of course I didn’t (and it’s not), but what I did expect was unique, off-beat characters, dark and violent moments offset by strangely comic ones without feeling imbalanced, and a fun, clever screenplay, and that’s pretty much exactly what I got, plus a bit more.
In this new voyage into Martin’s strange mind, we see the efforts of “Marty” (hehe), played by Colin Farrell, a struggling, alcoholic writer trying to overcome his latest round of writer’s block so he can finish his newest screenplay, called, funnily enough, “Seven Psychopaths”. His best friend Billy, a dognapper by trade and played by Sam Rockwell, is energetically (and, yes, psychotically) determined to see his friend finish the manuscript. To this end he pushes into motion a chain of events that eventually take himself, his fellow dognapper Hans (brought to us by the indefatigable Walken himself), and Marty from their everyday Los Angeles lives and into a journey of violent mobsters, stolen dogs, serial killers, serial killer killers, meta-movie references, and shootouts (both real and imagined). The result is something strange, uncertain, and often confusing, but also unforgettable.
For all of the excellent actors McDonagh manages to squeeze into the movie (and they are all very, very good), the standout performance comes courtesy of Sam Rockwell as Best Friend Billy. Not since Christian Bale in American Psycho have I seen such a compulsively watchable lunatic in a film. Rockwell adroitly manages to fill the screen and chew scenery in a way that switches from the hilarious to the shocking without ever upstaging or stealing the show from the rest of the cast, a feat that is not to be underestimated. Not only does he set much of the plot in motion on his own, but his compulsive and driving need to have everything turn out “his way” also dominates the conclusion, to the point that, by the end, you wouldn’t be surprised if McDonagh revealed he’d planned everything out himself from the word go.
It is a graphically violent and crude movie, make no mistake, so if copious blood and swearing is not your style, you should probably give this one a pass. However, what I admire about McDonagh is his ability to bring shocking violence and depravity into this films without it being senseless. He never shows blood or jots an F-bomb into the script just for the hell of it. Every act of violence, every horridly crude joke, is geared towards his overall purpose in making the film. In this case, that purpose is to offer a broad satire of both the standard shock-and-gore tactics typical of many modern action films, and our own insatiable desire for cinematic blood. This brings me back to the beginning of this review and my reference to Joss Whedon’s Cabin In The Woods. Like Cabin, Psychopaths is ultimately more than a simple parody of the standard tropes of its genre. It pokes fun (both subtly and not so subtly) at them, but also tries to explore why they exist in the first place.
While this is the aspect of Seven Psychopaths that is probably the most thought-provoking, it is also, depending on your interpretation of its critique, the primary weakness with the film. Cabin opted to attack the standard formulas in the horror genre by wading up to its eyeballs in them, drenching the Blazing Saddles-esque third act in so much gore than you couldn’t help but laugh at the ultimate emptiness of such tactics. In Psychopaths, the characters go out of their way to avoid the cliches that their respective characters usually provide. However, despite the clear effort to avoid these cliches, many of them are there anyway. For example, Hans and Marty wonder aloud why so many female characters in action films are shallow and poorly-written, yet the 3 named women in the film have little more than a scene apiece. And when Marty, Hans, and Billy start arguing about the idea of shootouts....well, you can probably imagine where that leads.
These seemingly obvious contradictions beg the following questions; is the fact that the film falls back on many of the very cliches it denigrates an unintended failing on the part of McDonagh’s writing or directing ability, a subconscious surrender to the pressure of what’s “expected?” Does he include them hoping that, shown next to the dialogue criticizing such cliches, the viewers will simply find them humorously ironic? Is he just lazy? Or, perhaps, is he purposely including them to show that the demand for cliches is so overwhelming, so unyielding, that they are, to some extent, unavoidable or inevitable? And if he is, does he see that as a good or bad thing? The answer you come up with will depend on your own interpretation of the film.
Perhaps the scene that best defines Seven Psychopaths (as well as its spiritual kin Cabin) and its approach towards their respective genres occurs towards the very end of the film. Anyone who has seen the trailer knows the part where Christopher Walken refuses to put up his hands when told to do so by one of Harrelson’s henchmen. After trying to figure out why his demand (in and of itself a huge cliche) is not being obeyed, the henchman says in a quiet, confused, almost desperate voice;
“But....it doesn’t make any sense!”
To which Christopher Walken, coolly and bluntly, replies;
Amen to that.