If you’ve always wanted to see a movie where Christopher Walken takes peyote, Harry Dean Stanton plays a psychotic Quaker, or if you just love Sam Rockwell, then finally at long last there’s a movie for you. Writer/director Martin McDonagh made the leap from playwriting to vulgar, literate crime movies a few years ago with In Bruges (a.k.a. that movie where Ralph Fiennes gloriously shouts, “You’re an inanimate fucking object!”). Seven Psychopaths offers the same brand of Tarantino-y intelligent gangster chatter with bursts of ultra violence from the last film, while also proving to be a very different beast entirely. While In Bruges was tightly wound and focused, McDonagh’s sophomore effort is more of a spiralling series of darkly comic episodes that only gets thoughtful in the climax and even then it’s never really meant to be taken seriously. It’s his crack at creating a violent cult comedy and thankfully he’s got the skills (and the cast) to pull off that trick.
The film stars McDonagh’s Bruges buddy Colin Farrell as an alcoholic screenwriter named Marty (get it?) who’s doing the beach bum LA thing while trying to nurse along his screenplay entitled Seven Psychopaths. He’s essentially just pulling together a series of short stories based on those seven folks with mental stability/violence issues and has a few logged in like the previously mentioned Quaker. In terms of structure and focus, he’s completely lost and spends a bit too much time sucking back the hooch and not enough rattling the keys. Fortunately he’s got a bit of a nutcase buddy in Sam Rockwell’s out of work actor Billy who wants to help. Billy puts out ads in newspapers trying to find worthy psychos with stories to tell (eventually stumbling onto Tom Waits’ bunny clutching killer of serial killers that needs to be seen to be believed). However, where Rockwell really comes in handy is the side gig he has kidnapping rich people’s dogs for cash with Christopher Walken (named Hans, wearing an ascot, and delivering everything you’d hope). Then the bumbling dog-nappers accidentally steal a local gangster’s (Woody Harrelson) Shih-Tzu and rather quickly that brings Marty into his own big screen crime adventure. It’s a this point that McDonagh’s snake starts to eat it’s own tale.
McDonagh is taking the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to trashy crime comedy here. For much of the first half of the film, he weaves a tale of slapstick violence with some lovingly crafted swearing (trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Christopher Walken say “fuck the police). Heads explode liberally, two stand ins for the In Bruges hitmen are killed in a clever opening gag, Rockwell goes increasingly insane, and it’s all in the name of good old bloody fun. Then somewhere around the midpoint, the movie shifts. McDonagh sends Farrell, Rockwell, and Rockwell out to the desert to plan their final fight with Harrelson over peyote (like any rational person would under the circumstances) and Farrell grows a conscience. He gets a little philosophical and decides to try and infuse his newfound pacifism into both his screenplay and the crime movie that he’s inadvertently starring in. So, the filmmaker transforms a celebration of the joys of big screen violence into a meditation on screen violence and somehow the two diametrically opposed magnets stick together. It helps that Rockwell and Walken’s characters are still game for bloody fun right up until the credits and it’s not as if McDonagh derides the audience for enjoying the comedy bloodbath he’s crafted. He just gives the movie somewhat of a moral center and comments on the nature of the style of crime comedy he clearly loves and thrives in.
All that said, Seven Psychopaths isn’t exactly a brain and/or buttnumbing think piece on the nature of big screen violence. It’s first and foremost a comedy and a messy one that pulls perhaps in too many directions at once before settling down just in the time for the credits. Ultimately, this brand of movie is all about entertainment and delivers the goods, with the thoughtful meta movie games coming as a bonus. It certainly doesn’t hurt that McDonagh has a hell of a cast spitting out his words and spilling blood for him. Farrell takes a subdued turn as the lead (particularly compared to In Bruges) and grounds things nicely, Rockwell is set loose on the film’s nuttiest psycho and kills it to deliver possibly the most deliriously entertaining performance of his career, Christopher Walken does what he does and seems excited for the first time in years by the material he was given, Harrelson snarls his way through playing an amusing bad guy, and Tom Waits is hysterical in an particularly eccentric role only his gravely tones could create.
I could go on like that about everyone who passes through a frame of the movie. McDonagh knows how to craft memorable characters through the kind of rapid fire dialogue that actors love to dig into and everyone he cast delivers the goods. He’s also proved to be a surprisingly adept visual storyteller only two films into his career and ensures that a movie which is essentially a collection of dialogue exchanges never feels less than cinematic. This is the film that all those 90s Tarantino knock offs wanted to be: smart, cine-literate, but ultimately pure visceral entertainment. The only real criticisms you can throw at the movie as that it’s too episodic and the female characters are underwritten to say the least. However, the meta-movie comedy structure allows McDonagh is able to mock both weaknesses in the film and get away with it. If you like your movies to include comedy and violence, you won’t want to miss out this one. It’s loaded with your cinematic drugs of choice…and peyote, which is a major bonus if that’s your literal drug of choice.