Seven Psychopaths

Director Martin McDonagh has finally returned with his second and better feature, “Seven Psychopaths,” four years after “In Bruges” (2008). That well-received film helped to strengthen Colin Farrell’s career at a time when it was faltering.

Farrel is working with McDonagh again on the new film, which is more fully realized than Ïn Bruge,” in a collaboration that servives well both director and star. This time out, Farrell, who stumbled in the disappointing remake of  “Total Recall” (though it was not his fault), is looking very confident and comfortable in the lead role of Marty, an Irish screenwriter who’s drinking his way to hell in Hollywood. “Seven Psychopaths” is actually the title of what he hopes will be his next feature—but that’s all he’s got so far, just the title.

Writer’s block has hit Marty, a stand-in for McDonagh, harder than hard. Is this what’s causing him to drink? Or is it the other way around: is it his drinking that’s keeping him from writing?

This is what his best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), believes. Unstable Billy, who over the course of the film will reveal the depths of his depravity, tries to move the project along by always nagging Marty to quit alcohol. Behind Marty’s back, he even places a classified ad in the “LA Weekly” seeking former psychos who’d like to have their stories committed to film. (As everyone knows, there’s no shortage of psychos in Los Angeles, especially in this kind of Los Angeles movie.)

“Seven Psychopaths” is the kind of movie in which people (mostly criminals) talk about movies incessantly. McDonagh harkens back to early Quentin Tarantino, especially “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), in this respect.

Most of the funniest lines in “Seven Psychopaths” satirize the very style of filmmaking that’s in practice here: “None of the animals die in the movie—just the women!” “Dream sequences are for fags!”  And Farrell delivers them with such panache that they hit their mark and don’t call too much attention to themselves.

“Seven Psychopaths” cuts back and forth between Marty’s entanglements with real-life psychos, who start popping up all around him, and dramatizations of the increasingly outlandish scenarios he (and eventually Billy, who desperately wants to be cowriter) dream up for the film. These are almost like short films within the film: yes, films within the film that’s about a film that hasn’t yet been made.

Harry Dean Stanton shows up as a Quaker psycho, Tom Waits as a psycho hunter of psychos, bunny in tow, Long Nguyen as a Vietcong psycho terrorist, and so on.

Back in the real world, Billy and his preternaturally calm pal Hans (Christopher Walken) are in the dangerous business of dognapping. Things start to get complicated when they swipe a beloved and extremely cute Shih Tzu from a heartless gangster (Woody Harrelson). But it’s ultimately a boon for Marty and his screenplay-to-be: the mobster gives him lots of new ideas.

The question, though, is whether Marty and friends will even survive. The mobster’s ready to chase them to the ends of the earth to get his pooch back, and a pursuit into Joshua Tree consumes the last stretch of the movie.

While Marty, Billy, and Hans hide out in the desert—all three of them now working on the screenplay—“Seven Psychopaths” starts to drag, lacking the third-act tightness and closure of “In Bruges,” though it doesn’t damge the movie–and the fun in watching this parade of great character actors.

Marty’s real world and his fantasy world begin to not so much collide as merge into one thing—he’s basically living in his own movie, probably imprisoned in it. Is this what happens to writers when they get too close to their material?

The twisty screenplay is written by McDonagh, who’s also a successful playwright, and as such knows the value of words.  Refreshingly absurdist, it depicts an ugly, dog-eat-dog world, one that’s, in the end, pretty much a downer. There’s an unshakable bitterness at the film’s core: broken dreams, bleak despair.

McDonagh briefly and unsatisfyingly touches on some bigger philosophical issues—our obsession with violence (and thus psychopaths), our confused views of the afterlife, even the roots of the religious impulse—but his cynical conclusion seems to be simply that we’re all screwed. No one here gets out alive, don’t even think about it.

McDonagh is more effective when he keeps things simple–and moving.  In particular, an unsettling hospital sequence involving a standoff between Harrelson and the fantastic Linda Bright Clay as Walken’s wife, who’s had cancer, stands out.

But, as noted, the main reason to see this movie is McDonagh’s near-perfect cast. Each member of the ensemble delivers on-the-money performances here, beginning with Farrell, who has seldom been so persuasive and commanding in his mainstream Hollywood pictures.

Waits, Walken, and Harrelson all play off their well-known personas and eccentricties to great effect. In fact, this has to be one of Walken’s spookiest and finest roles in a career already full of idiosyncratic, stand-out performances.

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