Following up a great directorial debut like the cult classic In Bruges would be a tough challenge for any filmmaker, but writer/director Martin McDonagh is back with a more lighthearted movie that still carries his hallmarks of great dialogue and tons of violence. With memorable performances, a wacky plot, and a nice mixture of humor and bloodshed, Seven Psychopaths is one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen in a theater this year.
The story follows Marty (Colin Farrell), an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter who searches for his next movie concept in order to meet his upcoming deadline. His friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is a struggling actor who has a dog kidnapping racket going with on the side with the eccentric Hans (Christopher Walken), who’s only in it for the money so he can help his hospitalized wife recover from her illness. The two of them swipe a dog at a public place, wait for a reward to be posted, and then Hans returns it and collects the dough. When they kidnap the dog of an deranged psychopath gangster named Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), he sets off a wave of carnage to make sure he gets his dog back at any cost, while Marty and the dognappers are caught in the middle.
For the few who have actually seen McDonagh’s previous film, In Bruges (and you should seek it out if you haven’t yet), you witnessed a deconstruction of the hitman subgenre through dialogue and the exploration of a key relationship between two triggermen who hide out after a botched job. The opening sequence of Seven Psychopaths sets up a very similar dynamic before abruptly changing direction, McDonagh’s way of telling us not to expect quite the same thing this time around. He’s right, because this film in infinitely more meta than his previous movie. Because the main character is a screenwriter and he’s working on a script called Seven Psychopaths, the film jumps around to fantasy sequences of this movie within the movie, about which the characters often provide humorous commentary as they work through different ideas. Plus, the characters actually encounter a bunch of psychopaths in the reality of the film, so there’s an extra level of detail to it. McDonagh slides in critiques of the state of Hollywood filmmaking, the depiction of women in film, and the glamorization of violence with subtlety and wit, most importantly keeping the comedy and the pacing moving along at a quick clip as bullets fly and blood pours. As Hans says in the trailer, “It’s got layers.”
Underneath all of the gore, Seven Psychopaths is about relationships. Marty and Billy’s friendship forms the core of the story, and through a plot development I won’t reveal, we find out the lengths Billy will go to in order to creatively inspire his best friend. Marty has some trouble with his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), while Billy secretly hooks up with Charlie’s girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko), and Tom Waits shows up as one of the psychopaths with a gripping backstory involving a female companion. The connectivity of these characters is all revealed eventually through one of the most fun scripts of the year, and McDonagh has proven without a doubt that he’s a filmmaker to keep an eye on. Not only writing, but directing, too; he has a great sense of comedic timing, framing, and blocking to highlight the impact of every gun shot and every joke equally.
Farrell is a bit more subdued than we normally see him, but he’s more boisterous than his melancholic character from In Bruges. Rockwell shines as the delightfully batty Billy (whose last name is Bickle, which isn’t an accident). Christopher Walken operates somewhere between man and amazing, giving McDonagh’s dialogue a lyrical quality by placing emphasis on unexpected words or phrases as only Walken can. Harrelson seems to be having a lot of fun as the wild-eyed gangster, and I much prefer his performance here to something like the over-serious and lifeless Rampart.
Seven Psychopaths certainly isn’t for everyone. Older audiences probably won’t take kindly to the excessive swearing and violence, while viewers on the younger end of the spectrum might not comprehend exactly how McDonagh is breaking down the process of writing a screenplay in his own screenplay. But for those who are prepared for a meta, maniacal, and hilarious adventure, look no further. And ironically, with all the talk of the violence and bloodshed in the film, there’s actually a great anti-violence message here. You just have to sift through loads of bodies to find it. Until next time…