Thursday, February 14, 2013

Seven Psychopaths

I'm a sucker for Sam Rockwell.  When you add in Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson, you have just created a film that I will watch, regardless of the story.  So why try to get around it?  Check out the red band trailer for Seven Psychopaths:
Judging from the trailer, Seven Psychopaths is writer/director 's attempt to make a fast-paced heist movie, along the lines of Snatch, but in English and with better dialogue.  McDonagh's first film (he is also a playwright) was the surprisingly enjoyable In Bruges; at first glance, it looks like he was trying to keep the humor, but up the pace with his follow-up.  And there is nothing wrong with that approach --- I bet McDonagh could make one hell of a great breakneck crime flick.  But that's not what he's going for with Seven Psychopaths, although it takes a little while for that to become clear to the audience.
Although there are hints that things will get weird

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a successful screenwriter suffering from writer's block.  The script he is working on is titled "Seven Psychopaths," but he's having trouble actually coming up with any characters.  That's where Billy (Sam Rockwell) comes in.  Billy is Marty's best friend, but he's not a particularly good influence.  Instead of working, Billy and Hans (Christopher Walken) kidnap dogs and then collect reward money when the owners post flyers around the neighborhood.  Billy is trying to help Marty finish his script, although nothing seems to be working.  That's why Billy puts an ad in the paper for psychopaths to contact Marty to tell him their stories.  
...which ultimately leads to Tom Waits carrying a bunny during a firefight
Meanwhile, it seems that Billy and Hans have made a mistake in their choice of dognappings.  Instead of a spoiled trophy wife's pet, they picked up a shih tzu belonging to a violent mob boss (Woody Harrelson).
That would be pretty bad, but they could theoretically give the dog back on the sly and hopefully avoid any violent repercussions.  Well, they could if Billy was a rational human being.  By holding on to the dog, the mob boss is able to identify the dognappers and send his underlings out to kill them.  Unless there happens to be some other psychopath on the loose, killing killers (and there is!).  So what do we wind up with?  A homicidal criminal out for revenge, a random killer on the loose, a confused and mostly drunk writer, an idiotic dognapper, and Christopher Walken.  And that is when the story takes an unusual turn, a metafictional turn that is better experienced than explained.
This is what you expect, but you get something slightly different

The acting in Seven Psychopaths is some of the better comedic work I have seen in a while.  As the mostly normal point-of-view character, Colin Farrell does a great job being surprised and helpless; he is mainly reacting to the other actors here, but he's refined the acting capabilities of his eyebrows as he's gotten older.  Sam Rockwell, as usual, was a bizarre delight.  Rockwell plays goofy exceedingly well, but he is exceptional when given a good script.  Christopher Walken was unmistakably Christopher Walken.  Some might argue that he's leaning into self-parody territory these days, but I love seeing him in good movies --- especially ones where his weirdness doesn't stand out more than anybody else's.
If I walked into my home and found Christopher Walken, I would expect him to look like this
Woody Harrelson clearly benefited from a script full of amusingly foul things to say.  Harrelson is a good actor, but he's at his best when playing up his comedy roots, and he does absurd comedy as well as anybody in mainstream Hollywood.
"Somebody cast me in a Coen Brothers movie!  A comedy, this time!"
The rest of the cast has what amounts to featured cameos.  Some of them, like Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko and Harry Dean Stanton, don't get to do much, although their parts move the plot forward.  Others, like Michael Pitt, Gabourey Sidibe and Kevin Corrigan, receive little screen time but compensate by having chunks of pretty great dialogue.  Even the actors playing straight roles, like Zeljko Ivanek, turn in quality character work.  Of all the supporting cast, Tom Waits has the meatiest and strangest role, although it is easily the least bizarre movie role I have seen of his.  It's always a pleasant surprise when you watch a movie and see only good acting in it, and it's a treat seeing an ensemble cast having this much fun.
More entertaining than it appears

Martin McDonagh clearly has a talent for getting the best from his actors, although the more readily apparent skill would be writing awesome dialogue.  Here's where McDonagh succeeds where Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarentino often fail: he actually develops his one-dimensional characters.  It would have been extremely easy to make Marty the soul of this movie --- he's the only remotely normal main character, after all --- but he went out of his way to show the pain of almost every goofy-ass character in this script. 
Exception noted, Mr. Harrelson
The technical side of the film was all done well enough (I liked the cinematography, although it was never too showy), but it is the writing that stands out the most. 

That is a good thing and a bad thing.  The good side I have already explained --- funny script, unexpected depth, etc. --- but the bad side comes into play about halfway through the film.  It gets meta.  I'm not a huge fan of metafiction, but I can appreciate when it is done well.  Thankfully, Seven Psychopaths doesn't screw it up or get too pretentious.  This is probably my favorite metafictional movie since Adaptation.  It's not that the movie has a metafictional aspect to it that bothers me --- it's that that aspect doesn't really come into play until the film is half over.  It felt like the script suddenly sobered up at the 45-minute mark and decided to put off the predictably silly and violent ending that it was so clearly heading toward in the first half of the film.  Had the meta been more prevalent earlier in the movie (or less prevalent later), this would have been far more effective.  Still, Seven Psychopaths is a blast to watch.


  1. This flick terribly underwhelmed me. The combination of the cast and director (I loved In Bruges) had me amped for it. (Maybe my expectations were too high?) While watching it, I felt like I was trying to laugh with it - almost like watching a good friend who is doing sub-par comedy. After it wrapped up, I thought it was decent, but fell way short on all the potential it had bundled up in it. I even enjoyed the plot (Going into it, I had little knowledge of it, aside from what the title suggested.), but thought it just missed as well. It was still entertaining, just disappointing. Even so, I am very much looking forward to McDonagh's next effort.

    1. I'm definitely down for more McDonagh. I didn't know much about the movie, aside from what the trailer implied, but I went into this one very excited. I was also let down, but enough of it came full circle to *almost* make up for intentionally going against the expectations McDonagh set up for himself.