“Ghandi was wrong.”
Generally, people tend to advise, “Write what you know,” and in this case the multitalented playwriting and screenwriting film director Martin McDonaugh took that borderline clichéd piece of advise as literally as possible. Floating around the artist’s head must be the remnants and fragments of countless ideas that have been churned out in conveyer belt-like fashion that mesh with memories and personal experiences or characteristics that allow the writer to build some fiercely individual pieces of work that either flourish on the stage or on the big screen. In 2008, McDonaugh made his first transfer from live action stage work to big time filmmaking with the jet black British comedy, In Bruges, and has followed up four years later with the devilishly sharp, Seven Psychopaths, a film whose title more than definitely defines its mental state. It’s a movie that simultaneously discuses a Shih Tzu, Quakers, a vengeful former Vietcong, krevats, interracial couples, the ideal location for a shootout, writer’s block and underwritten female characters, why Ghandi’s ‘eye for an eye’ philosophy is incorrect, dog-napping, the jack of diamonds, high ranking officers of the Italian American Mafioso or Yakuza, and Tom Waits carrying a bunny rabbit all seamlessly threaded together by a storytelling extraordinaire. I believe that Martin McDonaugh makes films when he comes up with a play idea that he realizes, upon expansion, can never fully work on the stage. Therefore, he uses his raw talent as a director and his practiced talent as a writer to present bold films like In Bruges and, now, the buckwild and maniacal Seven Psychopaths.
Taking a dose from the Charlie Kaufman formula, Colin Farrell plays Marty, a struggling screenwriter whose destructive writer’s block is fueling his alcoholism, hindering the progression of his new script – an overdue original piece called ‘Seven Psychopaths’ – and interfering with the already strained relationship he shares with girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish). In his slump, Marty finds solace in his nutty best friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), whose part time dog-knapping business, in which he works alongside the fashionable and religious Hans (Christopher Walken), whose wife is currently in the hospital, has just caught the attention of psychopathic mobster, Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson). Unbeknownst to the C-grade conmen, the Shih Tzu, named Bonny, they snatched off of caretaker Sharice (Gabourey Sadibe) and intended to return only a few days later has worried the murderous LA criminal to such an infuriated extent that it creates this outrageous trio-on-the run tale that provides just the right dosage of insanity to make Marty’s script come not only into completion, but into dramatized fruition as well.
In lamest terms, Seven Psychopaths is a full-fledged trip, one that is incomparable, unexpected, and absolutely crazed. It’s like getting slashed in the throat and having all your morality pour out of you. Ethics are thrown at the wall and lit on fire. It is the darkest and most sadistic, but somehow not at all most tasteless, films I’ve seen recently. Most comedies are dark, but this one is blacker than the coffee in Twin Peaks and there’s enough blood to rival Tarantino. Nonetheless, McDonaugh’s wondrously meta script is a revelation, marking the most intriguing self study and deconstruction of script structure since Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (hence the Kaufman quip earlier), and as a blossoming director, McDonaugh’s eye for visuals is remarkable and surely stems from working beside stage production craftsmen. A shuddering and beautiful pan over a blood spattered Catholic cross while Carter Burwell’s balletic score looms in the background and gorgeously lit desert shots only begin to explain McDonaugh’s directorial talent, while an excellently constructed murder montage set to Berlioz’s strophe, ‘Premiers transports,’ from Roméo et Juliette exemplifies wickedly twisted hilarity. While his presentation of sight gags is gut busting and his traditional approach to filmmaking is admirable (shot in crisp 35mm), the cast of players who have volunteered to bring McDonaugh’s vision to life are just as, if not more, worthy of applause for this ensemble is of perfected proportions.
The dependable Woody Harrelson, filling the shoes of originally cast Mickey Rourke, embodies a paradoxical psychopath without letting up, throwing away side-splitting lines and displaying sympathy toward animals while propelling intensity and instilling fear (a specific hospital-set encounter is relentlessly tense). Walken proves that he’s far more than the man with the funniest voice in Hollywood and that age may have done more good than bad. Everything that comes out of the actor’s mouth is an immediate one-liner. Farrell, who gave his comeback performance in In Bruges, is easily the weakest among the expansive cast, but that has more to do with the fact that he simply plays the straight man, and a great one at that. His constant flustered state and denials of alcoholism are the comedic linings to Farrell’s characterization of McDonaugh’s screen personality, plus Farrell’s use of his native Irish accent is just as welcome when delivering McDonaugh’s comedy as it was the first time around in In Bruges. Yet, it is Sam Rockwell who shines the brightest among his screen counterparts.
Rockwell’s mesmerizing performance is not uncommon for the reliable character actor, who consistently takes over the screen, whether he’s a supporter, like in The Green Mile or Iron Man 2, or at the forefront of the entire picture, like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or Moon. However, Rockwell’s Billy is an inspired portrayal of loyal best friend and bulging inner lunacy (Billy’s last name being Bickle is no coincidence) culminating in what is arguably his best role to date. Billy demands a showy and charismatic performance, quite the opposite of Rockwell’s pensive turn in Duncan Jones’ stellar Moon, which captured him at his best and earned him zero Academy recognition. For his turn in Seven Psychopaths, the Academy would be foolish to not right their wrong by awarding Rockwell a nomination at the very least, it would be well earned and make up for his previous robbery.
As for rounding out Psychopaths’ support, to expose the reasoning for the inclusion of characters played by Olga Kurylenko and the memorable Tom Waits, or to reveal the numerous cameos that appear throughout, would be a severe disservice to anxious or anticipating viewers.
Despite enjoying In Bruges on my first theatrical viewing, my indivisible love for that movie came after multiple home viewings before its charm could be completely embraced. Seven Psychopaths works similarly in that my initial takeaway was complete speechlessness. After great excitement and trailer viewings, what I expected was very, very far from being what I received during my press screening. Its sickly violent and sardonic tone, in addition to its cold and demented, though very present, heart and blasted morality, was almost too much to ingest the first time. I believe Seven Psychopaths has that same In Bruges charm, though hidden much deeper within, that can be mined out after some revisits because it took two viewings for me to doubtlessly appreciate the flick. After my second viewing, that previous equivocation dissipated and I’ve since become incredibly fond of McDonaugh’s sophomore effort, with an adoration that, at the very least, matches that of In Bruges. It is not wrong to say that after further revisits, it may rank higher than the playwriting filmmaker’s debut.
All bets are off; don’t check for prerequisites because there are none for this film, it’s all original and literally exits to astonish, bewilder, confuse, defile, impress, unnerve, and force you to accept its hilarious insanity. Don’t pursue this film with a list of expectations because this is a film designed to destroy them. Take my advice, enter this one of a kind film with zero and enjoy 2012’s second best self-aware frenzy behind Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods.
Review by Mike Murphy