At first glance, there’s a great deal to be excited about when it comes to Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. It’s got an absolutely rock-solid cast, including Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko — and that’s just scratching the surface. It’s written and directed by McDonagh, who brought us one of the most enjoyable surprises of the last ten years with the delightful In Bruges. Yet the concept was almost killed by its own weirdness — Marty, a struggling, alcoholic author (Farrell) is trying to write a screenplay called Seven Psychopaths, and gets swept up in the hijinks of his dog-kidnapper friend Billy (Rockwell) and Billy’s religiously devout partner Hans (Walken), when they steal the dog of a vicious mobster (Harrelson).
It sets the stage for a relatively simple madcap caper flick, wherein Marty and company are frantically trying to escape the pursuit of the dogged (natch) gangster and his goons (which include terrific character actors Kevin Corrigan and Željko Ivanek). But the surprise is that Seven Psychopaths isn’t that film at all. On the surface, I suppose it is, and you’ll certainly enjoy their hijinks and hilarity as they encounter any number of bizarre personalities. But the curveball is that Marty is writing about seven psychopaths, and some of them are real, while some of them are fictitious, and some of them are closer to him than he thinks. The film has a fun time slowly revealing who the real psychopaths are and delving deep into the psyche of all of its players, revealing each of their respective neuroses and psychoses.
Yet there’s one more layer to it, which is that it’s also an extremely subtle — yet scathing — send-up of the conventional Hollywood action/caper film. McDonagh hasn’t just written a movie, he’s written a statement of how ridiculous the onslaught of Hollywood cliche is, and it’s done in such a sly, meta fashion that it’s almost hard to recognize what is legitimate plot development and what’s the writer/director having fun at our — and the industry’s — expense. Marty is at one point criticized by one of his friends as having paper thin, poorly developed female characters who have little useful dialogue and are basically eye candy. And with that said, there are three female characters — two of which have little useful dialogue and are — wait for it — basically just eye candy. One of the characters goes to painstaking steps to set up what he hopes to be a final, massive gunfight, and then is hysterically irate when it doesn’t live up to his expectations. Yet somehow, it all flows together organically into one bizarre, intertwining series of stories.
The film uses its own story and characters as a weapon to show you the inherent goofiness of the genre, yet it also has a vein of deadly seriousness to it that’s almost jarring at times. Walken’s relationship with his cancer-stricken wife (Linda Bright Clay) is an absolute heart-breaker, and it’s that type of serious, well-executed melodrama that makes the film so absorbing while constantly keeping the viewer off-balance. It’s funny as hell, to be sure, but there are moments of serene genius as well as grim, almost gruesome realism. Yet McDonagh also uses that very gruesomeness as its own form of satire as he shows the horrible doings of his group of psychopaths.
And they are a delight, these collected crazy people. Harrelson’s Charlie Costello is a sneering, strutting jackass who is undone by his simpering adoration of his little Shih-Tzu, and her disappearance brings out the sap and the psycho in him (the character was originally to be played by Mickey Rourke who quit and notoriously called McDonagh a “jackass.” I think we should all be grateful for that turn of events). Tom Waits is spectacularly creepy as the quietly vengeful, bunny-stroking serial killer who Marty stumbles into interviewing for his screenplay. But the film is built on the foundation of Farrell, Rockwell, and Walken, and they are collectively and individually perfect. I’m convinced that McDonagh has a gift when it comes to Farrell, as he’s coaxed out the two best performances of his career. Farrell is tired and listless and frustrated and furious, and he fluidly navigates those emotions seamlessly. Rockwell is an absolute lunatic, the crazy friend that you almost wish wasn’t your friend. He’s (unsurprisingly) the comic gem of the film, yet also speaks with such a painful earnestness that you want to pat his head a little. Walken, as the beguiling yet bewildered, cravat-wearing philosopher is, despite that odd grouping of descriptors, surprisingly subdued, with marvelous effect.
But to give you anything more is to begin to chip away at the enjoyment of the experience as a whole. Seven Psychopaths is not just several intertwining stories, it’s several intertwining ideas and criticisms and celebrations. Part of the fun is figuring out what he’s trying to do and say through the medium of film, while trying to work out what’s real and what’s in Marty’s head. It’s weird and fun and sad and gross and clever, and it’s easily one of my favorite movie-watching experiences of the year.