Silver Screen: Seven Psychopaths ***1/2
There likely won't be a more poorly marketed movie this year than Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh's not entirely successful but entirely entertaining riff on the hyperviolent hitman comedy. Seven Psychopaths is a self-aware critique of the nihilism and glib gore that dominates this whole subgenre of film, but the trailers pitch it as exactly the kind of mordant shoot 'em up it aims to skew.
The film opens with a pair of well-dressed hitmen (Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) having the kind of snappy, quasi-philosophical debate familiar to gangster movies, and especially to modern gangster-movie pastiches of Tarantino and the lesser derivatives. They're so engrossed in their witty banter that they fail to notice the masked gunman stroll up behind them and fire pistols into the backs of their heads. It's a blunt statement, but in its bluntness (and with the attendant spray of blood and brains) it nearly becomes the object of its own critique. That's a trend that persists-- when it falters, Seven Psychopaths threatens to become the too-familiar movie it's advertised as, rather than live up to its own ambitions.
Following the none-too-subtle epilogue, McDonagh begins arranging the fragments of his plot-- a mosaic of scenes that skip haphazardly through time, encompass stories within stories, and eventually unite seeming disparate story tangents. Why, yes, that does sound like Pulp Fiction. And there's Christopher Walken! He co-stars as Hans, a nattily dressed conman who brings flowers and hard-scammed money to his ailing wife (Linda Bright Clay). With his partner, the volatile but good-humored Billy (Sam Rockwell), Hans kidnaps dogs, waits for the owners to post reward signs, then returns them to collect the money. The scheme takes a turn for the worse when Billy pinches the prize pooch of quick-tempered gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who will do anything to get back his beloved dog.
Caught up at the intersection of these various thugs is Marty (Colin Farrell), an alcoholic screenwriter struggling with his latest script, called Seven Psychopaths. He only has a title. But while hanging out with his best pal Billy he gets drawn into the drama, which he quickly seizes on as fodder for the screenplay. The more involved Marty gets, however, the more the events of his life and the script begin to parallel one another.
In its best moments, Seven Psychopaths is the Adaptation of hitman movies. Around the halfway point of the movie Marty, Hans, and Billy flee to the desert to hide out from Charlie's men. They sleep in tents, make a fire, take peyote, and have long conversations about the nature of narrative and the deeper implications of violence. Marty is not only writing his movie at this point, he's writing this movie. Heretofore Seven Psychopaths has been such a dead-on satire of hyperviolent comedies, it's actually just been a pretty good hyperviolent comedy, but now it goes gloriously off track. Marty considers that it's both too easy and worthless to rush toward a violent ending; perhaps the seemingly predestined final shootout is actually just a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Unfortunately, McDonagh can't quite commit to his most interesting ideas, and in the final scene tries to have his climax and mock it, too. It's a bit feeble, even with a nifty callback involving a story-within-a-story featuring Tom Waits as a lovelorn serial killer. But though it doesn't end cleanly, or even particularly well, Seven Psychopaths at least manages to raise some interesting questions, if not answer them.
And McDonagh, a celebrated playwright, crafts crackling dialogue full of subtle jokes and profane provocations, all brilliantly delivered by an ace cast. Walken is at his wonderful Walkeniest, Rockwell is the standout, and Farrell is sharp as a loser struggling to make his first good decisions in a long time. They're joined by a rogues’ gallery of great supporting players, including the aforementioned Waits, Kevin Corrigan, Zeljko Ivanek, and the great Harry Dean Stanton. McDonaugh tries to cut himself some slack by pointing out that women play subordinate roles at best in his movie, but the meta-commentary doesn't excuse the fact, much the same way he's eventually unable to defend his own bloodlust. But as he did in his similarly compelling previous film, In Bruges, McDonaugh lingers on the tragedy of one blood encounter to reexamine the violence of the rest of the movie and lend it gravity. It's a tarnished moralism, but it clears the low bar set on the other seven screens at the multiplex.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.