Writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) wants to have his darkly comic cake and eat it too with “Seven Psychopaths,” a gory bucket of blood that uses its postmodernist structure to hint at a deeper, counterintuitive meaning – maybe even a moral.
But despite a few great performances and entertaining set pieces, there is something deeply repulsive about this film. To my mind, “Seven Psychopaths” is itself a deeply psychopathic, pseudointellectual exercise in cinematic fakery that validates the bloodlust of its audience – a bit like telling a racist joke in the service of mocking the idea of racism.
It recalls screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation,” in that a character in the movie is a screenwriter cursed with writer’s block. The twist in both films is that the events in the film’s narrative and the fictional screenplay converge, tearing down the proverbial fourth wall separating actors from the audience. The difference is that “Adaptation” uses the device as a way to connect viewers with the flawed, troubled inner life of the writer. But Marty (Colin Farrell), the alcoholic screenwriter in “Seven Psychopaths,” has no inner life. He’s a sponge, existing only to soak up others’ hard-won experience and wring it out for his own profit.
As a stand in for Mr. McDonagh, Marty is self-effacing but mostly flat. The movie gets its manic energy from his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), a hyperkinetic sidekick who wants Marty to change his life by drinking less, writing more and breaking up with his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish). Billy supports himself by working a dognapping scheme with Hans (Christopher Walken). They steal dogs, wait for the owner to put up signs offering a reward for the missing pet and then collect. The pair stumbles into deep trouble when they nab the very cute Shih Tzu of emotionally unhinged crime boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Charlie really wants his dog back, and he doesn’t especially care who he has to kill to get it.
The story tracks the collision between the search for the dog and Marty’s search for enough psychopaths to populate the screenplay he owes. Billy wants so much to help Marty that he shares stories about psychopaths from the newspapers and from people he knows. He even places an ad in a local alt-weekly that attracts Zachariah (Tom Waits), who tells the story of a coast-to-coast murder spree in which he and his wife preyed on serial killers.
Mr. Waits is compelling as the lovelorn killer who misses his former partner in crime. Mr. Rockwell delivers a rather astonishing performance as the unhinged, possibly deranged Billy. Mr. Walken walks a fine line, playing Hans as a man driven in equal measures by religion and revenge. Sometimes his slow-motion intonations sound like the words of a prophet; other times they sound like the world’s best Christopher Walken impression.
The shabbiness of “Seven Psychopaths” becomes more apparent once the set pieces are played out and the movie limps to its muddled conclusion. The snappy dialogue, recalling Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction,” loses its edge, and the movie-within-a-movie references get lamer and harder to take.
Mr. McDonagh might have made an interesting, off-kilter genre movie, but “Seven Psychopaths” is undone by what might charitably be called unattained literary ambitions, and uncharitably tagged as raw cynicism and negativity.
TITLE: “Seven Psychopaths”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Martin McDonagh
RATING: R for violence, language and nudity
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS