REVIEW: 'Seven Psychopaths'


Part-way through Martin McDonagh’s new film Seven Psychopaths, a character praises a script idea for having “layers”. It’s a self-reflexive comment: one of the film’s conceits is that we’re watching a real-life version of a screenplay that another character, played by Colin Farrell, is writing. It’s a thoughtful tactic, one that simultaneously hooks you on Seven Psychopaths’ story and reels you in with its craftsmanship.

The layered narrative structure is courtesy of McDonagh, who broke into the film world with the darkly funny In Bruges in 2008. That film followed a stellar career as one of Ireland’s key contemporary playwrights. Now, he comes to his second feature with a fresh story, a bigger cast and the same desire to put characters before the plot. If you can put up with the blood and the cursing, Seven Psychopaths is a clever and unexpectedly touching black comedy. Yes, even the nutcases have a soft side.

We’re introduced to Marty (Farrell), a struggling screenwriter in Los Angeles working on a new movie called – what else – Seven Psychopaths. Marty’s friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is trying to help him come up with seven different psychos to populate the new movie. Marty insists it should be a “pacifist” film, even though he’s including a throat-cutting “Quaker psychopath” and a gun-toting Viet Cong vigilante.

Complicating matters is Billy’s side job, a dog kidnapping business he runs with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken). The two dog-nappers snatch pets and return them to worried owners for a reward. It’s a mostly harmless practice until Billy swipes the beloved dog of a local gangster (Woody Harrelson), setting off a chain of events that will either give Marty the inspiration he needs, or get everyone killed.

Aside from the film’s delicious sense of self-awareness, McDonagh has repeated the feat he accomplished with In Bruges. He’s come up with a collection of characters who drive the film just by existing. The story tumbles along in their wake, and we’re left to follow along, with no idea of where we’re going next. As a result, the film feels much more real than a typical Hollywood feature, many of which approach their plots as if they were ticking off the boxes on a “to do” list.

But McDonagh's strategy has an impact on the less savoury parts of the film. As funny as Seven Psychopaths is, viewers will have to prepare themselves for a lot of blood, and more importantly, a lot of pointless violence. Sure, it might be implied by the title, but if you don’t find it funny when two dumb criminals get shot through the eye, you’re likely not in the target audience for this film.

Somehow, there’s a tender side to the movie that almost balances out the violence. We see that Marty and Billy are good friends, despite the quirks that get on each other’s nerves. Walken’s Hans and another older character (played by Tom Waits) both talk about their pained relationships with the women they love. And all the mob boss wants is to get his dog back. If there wasn’t a vicious undercurrent to it all, the audience might become a sobbing mess.

One of the ways McDonagh likes to challenge the viewer is to poke at the rules of film – he doesn’t break the fourth wall, but he pushes on it, almost to see how strong it is. Like when Marty, Billy and Hans hunker down in the desert and just talk. Billy complains, “What are we making here, a French movie!?”  The line isn’t aimed at the camera – McDonagh isn’t as direct as that. Because of the “movie within a movie” device, the director can set up an illusion and knock it down, just to see what happens.

I’m impressed that McDonagh would want to try all that and find a way to make it funny at the same time. Seven Psychopaths is not for everybody. The violence will turn some off, as will the denser layers of the story. But for those who like getting lost in the worlds McDonagh creates, the film is an entertaining exercise in lunacy. Seven Psychopaths gets three stars out of four.

What did you think of Seven Psychopaths? Were you hoping for another film like In Bruges? Did it deliver? Or was the self-aware “film within a film” idea too much for you? Let me know in the comments section. If you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers, and check out my recent reviews here:


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