By Chaz Lipp
I’ll say this for Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh’s mercurial ensemble comedy, it’s certainly unpredictable. Boasting knock out performances by Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, and – above all – Christopher Walken, Psychopaths has more surprises than any movie I’ve seen in a long time. The trailer mis-sold the film as yet another run-of-the-mill, Tarantino-esque bit of misanthropic, pseudo-dark, ultra-violent, über-hip crap. Actually, I suppose it really is all of those things – with one vitally important exception: it’s not crap. While part of me vehemently opposes its self-consciously meta structure (this is, in fact, a movie about the creative process of writing a screenplay, à la Adaptation), another part of me was absolutely tickled pink by all the unabashedly gleeful fun that McDonagh injected into his creation.
So yeah, if you saw the trailers and yawned, trust me on this one point – Seven Psychopaths is not only astoundingly better than it looked in its marketing campaign, it’s deserving of a far wider audience than it found during its depressing ninth-place opening weekend box office performance. McDonagh was also the writer-director behind 2008’s In Bruges, which I will freely admit to having never seen (but I definitely will now). Here he tells the story of Marty Faranan (Farrell), a screenwriter whose latest work stubbornly refuses to flow from his pen. He has the title, Seven Psychopaths, and a germ of a plot, but other than that he’s struggling to come up with suitably colorful characters.
Enter Billy Bickle (Rockwell), Marty’s motor-mouthed friend and petty criminal. Billy, who desperately wants to help write Marty’s Psychopaths screenplay, runs a dognapping enterprise with Hans (Walken). Fear not, animal lovers – McDonagh knows full well that audiences generally care more about the well-being of onscreen animals than people. Billy and Hans snatch pets from their owners, only to collect generous reward money after returning them unharmed. While Billy is just in it for the money, Hans has a higher purpose. His wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay, who leaves a strong impression despite limited screen time) has been battling cancer. Everything he scores from the dognapping scam goes to fund her treatment. Their simple scheme becomes considerably more complicated after they hijack a pooch from a powerful crime boss, Charlie Costello (Harrelson).
That’s all I’m going to say about the plot. The less one knows going into Seven Psychopaths, the better. McDonagh is having fun examining and subverting audience expectations. The characters discuss what elements Marty’s movie should include (Marty wants thoughtful discourse between the characters, while Billy wants shoot-outs), and various suggested scenarios are depicted for our consideration. As Marty encounters more people from whom he can borrow stories for his screenplay (including a demented Tom Waits as the rabbit-loving Zachariah Rigby), it becomes apparent that nearly everything in McDonagh’s film is playfully tongue-in-cheek. That does end up working against it, in a way. The final act tips into mild tedium as the clever construction of the first two-thirds begins to crumble. McDonagh didn’t seem to know how to effectively work his way out of the narrative corner he painted himself into. I’m also not sure what point he was ultimately trying to make, if any at all. But I’m definitely looking forward to watching the movie again to see how it all holds up during repeat viewings.
Special note must be made of Christopher Walken’s performance. Of course, Walken has willingly become kind of a caricature over the years. So many folks have imitated his unique speech patterns and unusual delivery that it has long since ceased to seem unique or unusual. Walken himself is seemingly in on the joke, relishing the opportunity to send himself up over the years on SNL. But it can never be forgotten that when he’s inspired, he’s a magnetic, entrancing performer. This is his best work in years. He manages to dig so deeply into the soul of his character, Hans, that he instills a genuine beating heart at the core of what is essentially an intentionally superficial deconstruction of “style over substance.” Even if nothing else about Seven Psychopaths worked (and luckily that is not the case), it would still be worth seeing for his portrayal of Hans.
Photos: CBS Films