We open on the iconic Hollywood sign, and then pan down to two hit men going about their day. They bullshit about shooting people in eyeballs (the definition of overkill) and their boss’ woman (whom they are contracted to murder) with a combination of snappy platitudes and rhyming dialogue. For a moment, you’d be forgiven for thinking you walked into a mid-90s Tarantino movie, or one of the endless knock-offs they inspired. But then those two hit men get shot in the head by an unknown assailant. A fresher, crazier voice has taken over.
A booze-soaked fever dream of a movie, "Seven Psychopaths" is a metatextual marvel. The second feature from English/Irish playwright Martin McDonagh is about a drunken Irish author named Martin (Colin Farrell), struggling to write a film called "Seven Psychopaths." Off the bat, it may seem too cheeky, too self-referential, to stand on its own. But Martin the writer/director, Martin the character, and the titular gang of psychopaths are good for a lot more than winks and viscera.
Martin’s friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell - the relation to cinema’s other most famous Bickle is certainly implied), and Billy’s friend Hans (Christopher Walken), have been living off a dognapping scheme; claiming the rewards that come from grateful owners when they return the stolen pooches. It’s with Walken that the film finds its soul; in him that it transcends its "Adaptation"-lite plot. Whenever the picture starts to feel cheeky (endless film references abound - Walken’s pacifist is even named Kieslowski, after the eminently humanist Polish filmmaker of the same name), his plights - from a sick wife to a philosophical interlude brought by a hit of peyote - bring the film right back to Earth, with painful specificity.
Unfortunately, with Bonny the Shih Tzu, Walken and Rockwell take the wrong pup. Enter Charlie Costello, played with a mix of over-the-top bluster and vulnerability by Woody Harrelson. Charlie is your boilerplate movie mob boss, right down to the personalized handgun and the sidekick played by Kevin Corrigan (now that’s attention to detail). Harrelson pulls off the all-too-challenging balancing act of being sinister and silly. It’s not the parts where he plays a wimp (constantly crying over his dog), that stretch the film’s range; but rather when it allows him to get truly cold-blooded: a Tarantino-esque verbal duel between him and a hospital patient is one of the tensest sequences to grace a movie screen in ages.
It all works, the everywhere-and-anywhere style tone, because McDonagh’s focus isn’t on the violence, or on the "meta" angle - it’s on the human soul. By the time Martin, Billy, and Hans drive out to the desert to evade Costello and his bloodlust, it’s clear McDonagh has no interest in playing to the usual gangster film standards. As the three try to write the screenplay we’re ostensibly watching, Billie comes up with the gleefully violent take - in a bravura sequence, he pitches his crass, campy, overtly commercial pitch for the film’s would-be ending, with all seven psychopaths coming back into play for a John Woo-style gunfight against the baddies. It’d be an unbelievably ludicrous sequence were Bickle’s ideas not dissimilar to things we’ve already seen in Tarantino knockoffs from A ("Smokin’ Aces") to Z ("Killing Zoe".)
But McDonagh sides closer with Hans than to Billy. A second act speech given to Martin, about how "you’re the one who wanted to write about psychopaths" even though "they tend to get tiresome, after a while," feels like a criticism directed at an entire cinematic generation; one that traded out an interest in subtext and aesthetic style for big squibs and bigger guns. Martin (the character) wants to write a violent movie that’s actually "about love," and I’ll be damned if Martin (the filmmaker) hasn’t done it.
In a fairly surprising turn, the Irish Catholic guilt that enveloped every moment of McDonagh’s first picture (the instant-classic "In Bruges") has here been swapped out for a vested interest in Eastern religions and pacifist philosophies. "Bruges" was a movie where mass murderers fought to the death to prevent a suicide, if only because that mortal sin outweighed all their ’forgivable’ ones. "Seven Psychopaths" plays on the opposite end of the spectrum, presenting a series of violent sequences that reinforce an "eye-for-an-eye" philosophy, which is dramatized as the real ultimate sin. What’s so ironic in light of his earlier film was what was once the ultimate taboo (allowing oneself to die) is now the source of transcendence, the source of "light." We spend 105 minutes waiting for a character humane enough not to shoot back.
As mysterious and elliptical as it is exuberant and hilarious (a doozy of a third act coda left me dying to return to the film over and over; wanting to flush out its themes and repetitious cycles of violence further), "Seven Psychopaths" is made from equal doses of by-the-gallon-gore and heady philosophical inquiry. It’s unfortunate that the meta-aspects, which are comparatively hollow, will be more talked about than the musings that lie below them. McDonagh is less interested in himself than he is in a culture of movies that glorify revenge, operatic levels of violence, and criminals who can’t help but be cool.
He plays in the gangster movie sandbox while making something uniquely his own. As much about the banal as the brutal (one of my favorite shots sees a character shuffling through the guns and masks in his glove compartment to find the Nutri-Grain bar hidden behind them), McDonagh has rewritten the contemporary action movie for a generation tired of getting off on seeing people being blown away. The pieces of the action movie puzzle are the same, sure. But you’ve never seen them arranged quite like this again.
Marty :: Colin Farrell
Hans :: Christopher Walken
Billy :: Sam Rockwell
Charlie :: Woody Harrelson
Kaya :: Abbie Cornish
Zachariah :: Tom Waits
Angela :: Olga Kurylenko
Paulo :: Zeljko Ivanek
Sharice :: Gabourey Sidibe
Dennis :: Kevin Corrigan
Zachariah Age 19 and 30 :: Brendan Sexton III
Producer, Martin McDonagh; Producer, Graham Broadbent; Producer, Pete Czernin; Executive Producer, Tessa Ross; Cinematographer, Ben Davis; Film Editor, Lisa Gunning; Original Music, Carter Burwell; Production Design, David Wasco; Supervising Art Direction, John Dexter; Set Decoration, Sandy Wasco; Costume Designer, Karen Patch.