Irish playwright and screenwriter Martin McDonagh’s new directorial effort, Seven Psychopaths, is a hilarious, hare-brained, spastic film built on snappy, self-referential dialogue and buoyed by a cast that is game for whatever is thrown at it. McDonagh reunites with some actors with whom he’s worked in the past—Colin Farrell starred in his excellent first feature, In Bruges, and Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken played the leads in his uneven play, A Behanding in Spokane. They are excellent here, as are Tom Waits and Woody Harrelson, and others in winking bit parts like Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg (who riff on their Boardwalk Empire roles in a clever opening scene). Seven Psychopaths is many things—an ode to and critique of Los Angeles, a film within a film that is as much a sendup of the action movie genre as it is an embrace, and an update on the kind of postmodern film dialogue that is Quentin Tarantino’s bread and butter. There’s a lot going on here, but it all amounts to a really good time.
Farrell plays McDonagh’s surrogate, a writer named Marty who is struggling to finish a new screenplay. He tends to drink way too much, a trait that the film asserts is the natural result of his being both Irish and a scribe. Rockwell plays his friend, Billy, an unemployed actor who is constantly offering his unsolicited and unwanted ideas for the new script. Rockwell is great in this role, off-kilter and quirky but completely likable even as it becomes apparent that he’s engaged in some rather nefarious activities. Meanwhile, Walken plays Hans, a friend of Billy’s who makes a living by stealing dogs and collecting the rewards offered for their return. For fans of his unique cadence, the film contains what is soon to be a classic Walken line, as he exclaims in the manner only he is capable of, “Fuck the cops! Fuck ’em!”
The situation becomes complicated when Hans steals a dog that belongs to a very unstable gangster, Charlie, played by Woody Harrelson in what is a stellar comic performance. Charlie is completely distraught, and no act of violence is too heinous in the quest of getting his dog back. At the same time, a masked vigilante is violently offing criminals left and right. This anonymous anti-hero is just one of the titular seven psychopaths. The rest surface in vignettes as Marty and Billy imagine storylines for the film they are writing throughout the course of the movie, and recruit real-life psychos to help supply story ideas. One of these is played by Tom Waits, charmingly growly and curmudgeonly soft-spoken.
The core characters eventually make their way from L.A. to Joshua Tree National Park, where they take peyote, shoot guns, and generally make McDonagh’s already crackling dialogue even better. He clearly has something of a love-hate relationship with Hollywood, skewering its tired conventions and superficiality while relishing gratuitous blood spatters and slow-mo shootouts. It’s all very calculated, but McDonagh and his cast are so good here that it consistently works. It remains to be seen if Seven Psychopaths will find its way with audiences and move past the cult status it seems destined for—the film is too meta to be a regular action/thriller, and perhaps too gleefully violent for the hardcore art house crowd. This probably matters very little to McDonagh, however, who seems content to sacrifice some box office to let his zany, singular voice be heard.
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits
Release Date: Oct. 12, 2012