Although trailers have tried to portray Seven Psychopaths as an oddball mainstream comedy with a large all-star cast, the actual movie is a violent, uniquely peculiar black comedy that rejects mainstream sensibilities. Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s second feature film after his 2008 masterpiece In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths is more in the vein of a Coen Brothers flick, with razor-sharp, witty dialogue and vicious violence buttressing a story about criminals and killers in a hectic world. With most every major studio release these days being a remake, a sequel, a prequel or an adaptation of a pre-existing source, it’s refreshing to witness something like Seven Psychopaths; an audaciously original motion picture which plays with genre conventions and conveys a creative, multilayered narrative. It’s not quite as good as In Bruges, but it’s a remarkable sophomore effort for McDonagh.
An alcoholic screenwriter, Marty (Farrell) is suffering from writer’s block. He has the title for his latest script – “Seven Psychopaths” – but is unable to crack the idea or conceive of the seven titular crazy folk. Enter Marty’s eccentric pal Billy (Rockwell), who works alongside Hans (Walken) in a small-time con game. Billy and Hans essentially steal dogs and return them to their owners in exchange for reward money. But the pair find themselves in over their head when they kidnap a prized Shih Tzu owned by ruthless mobster Charlie (Harrelson). Determined to retrieve his beloved dog, Charlie begins a killing spree as he works to find the culprits. Marty finds himself inadvertently involved in the clusterfuck, all the while gleaning ideas for his screenplay.
Seven Psychopaths is so deliriously entertaining due to how unexpectedly meta it is. On a regular basis, the characters reference conventions of typical action films before we see them live through such clichés. Into the third act, Billy talks about his want for Marty’s latest screenplay to be violent and full of shootouts, but Marty pitches the idea of a second half in which the characters drive into the desert and simply talk. During this conversation, the characters are driving into the desert, and they end up simply talking for ages. Billy refuses to believe that a gun battle will not take place between himself and Charlie, to the extent that he forces a shootout. Furthermore, as if McDonagh was aware of his film’s own shortcomings and was keen to beat his critics to the punch, Hans at one stage points out that the female characters in Marty’s script either have nothing to say or get shot after five minutes. And remember, this is a motion picture called Seven Psychopaths written by an Irish screenwriter named Martin, and it’s about an Irish screenwriter named Martin who’s writing a script entitled “Seven Psychopaths”. Astonishingly, the self-referential material never comes off as pretentious or too self-knowing; it all sounds organic, as McDonagh doesn’t overdo it and is a generally skilful writer.
As to be expected from McDonagh, the writer-director’s dialogue is engaging and witty, and he has a perfect ear for dark humour. Seven Psychopaths is also loaded with hilarious non-sequiturs. One particularly strange interlude introduces Tom Waits as a bunny-carrying oddball eager to tell Marty about his life experiences. This leads to a wildly audacious and riotously funny montage that rewrites history by revealing the fates of several infamous murderers who were never caught, including the Zodiac killer. The story proper is also interrupted at various times for small vignettes spotlighting characters from Marty’s budding script. It’s brilliant stuff. McDonagh is a truly skilful director, too, with a firm grasp on pacing and mise-en-scène. Ben Davis’ cinematography is equally agreeable. Seven Psychopaths was shot on 35mm film, which gives the picture a gorgeous look that digital cameras just cannot replicate. At times the film’s momentum does flag, and a few tonal changes are a bit jarring, but for the most part the picture is agreeable and entertaining. And be sure to stick around for the first segment of the credits, which culminate with a hilarious additional scene.
Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell are an inspired pair of protagonists, and they work wonderfully together. Farrell makes for a great panicked straight man, while Rockwell is at his most gleefully unhinged here. Rockwell is terrifically energetic, and his comic timing and delivery is spot-on – it’s especially side-splitting to watch Rockwell describe his vision of the climactic shootout. As Hans, the always watchable Christopher Walken (with a cravat around his neck) looks to have had an absolute ball here. Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson is an ideal Charlie – he’s darkly funny, and he’s sinister when he needs to be. There are a number of terrific cameos, as well, from the likes of Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey Sidibe and Zeljko Ivanek (you may not know his name, but you almost certainly know his face). The first scene also features Boardwalk Empire actors Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg who set the tone playing oblivious hitmen.
Similar to Cabin in the Woods, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is a meta movie that’s not overdone. It’s clever without becoming too proud of itself, and it’s ideal for smart, film-savvy audiences. Fiercely funny and beset with twists and scene-stealing performances (it cannot be overstated just how great Sam Rockwell is), Seven Psychopaths is a thoroughly entertaining non-PC romp that deserves to be seen multiple times.