REVIEW: Seven Psychopaths

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 4)

Seven Psychopaths (2012):  Written and directed by Martin McDonagh.  Starring:  Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Abbie Cornish.  Rated R for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.  Running time: 110 minutes.

I’ll confess—I had high expectations for this one.  When playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh does anything, I take notice.  With the Academy Award-winning short film “Six-Shooter” and his impressive feature In Bruges (the favorite of this critic) under his belt, he returns to the silver screen with a decidedly different work.

How does one categorize McDonagh’s films? Like his plays, they run the gamut from comedy to tragedy, slapstick to serious, blood ‘n’ guts to wordplay.

Colin Farrell, whom seems to have discovered his acting mojo thanks to In Bruges, plays Marty (accident? I think not).  He’s a writer, which means alcohol is his best friend, as his other best friends are sure to remind him.  Marty’s problem is this—he’s got an intriguing title with Seven Psychopaths, but that’s about it.  Who are these psychos, and what’s their angle? (Buddhist?  Amish?  Quaker?)  But Marty usually takes a back seat to the antics of his best friend Billy Bickel, played flamboyantly and fearlessly by Sam Rockwell.

Bickel is the loose cannon—the Tommy DeVito to Marty’s Henry Hill.  He loves Marty’s concept, and he’s got more than few ideas of his own, including a tear-inducing, hilarious blow-by-blow of the inevitable final shootout.  When Billy gets involved with the enigmatic Hans (Christopher Walken) in a dog-napping con (they kidnap the dogs, then return them to the owners for a reward), they enrage local mobster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson).

My advice to you?  Stick with this film.  It’s not always clear where McDonagh is going with his plots, and that’s true here.  But the beginning here is rather unpleasant, the quirks of his characters grating, and it’s violent right off the bat.  The movie meanders through character introductions and tall tales as a sort of warm-up for Marty’s screenplay (and the film).  One disturbing sequence details a murder spree of serial killers, sucking the romance out of every movie revenge story.  The film picks up around the halfway point, putting its various meanderings into perspective.

Like many smart movies before it (Pulp Fiction and Adaptation come to mind, and even the recent The Cabin in the Woods), Seven Psychopaths criticizes other movies.  While seeming to revel in violence, the film actually critiques movie violence by showing us just how tiresome it can become.  About halfway through the film, it moves its characters from Hollywood to Joshua Tree National Park, about as far away from civilization (and the film industry) as possible.  And then it starts criticizing itself.  Could things get any more meta?

That self-awareness runs into a few problems, however.  “Your women characters are awful,” says Hans to Marty.  Indeed, Abbie Cornish as Marty’s girlfriend and Olga Kurylenko as Charlie’s squeeze are wasted, but as to what purpose I’m not sure.  Especially when one considers that McDonagh has written fine female characters before—wouldn’t it have made more sense to break the mold?  To be fair, Linda Bright Clay as Hans’s wife Myra does toy with convention, but even her part is brief.

The film is full of brilliant moments, but seems to lack the emotional heft of McDonagh’s last feature, and I can’t say it’s quite as hilarious in order for me to call it a great comedy.  Still, a repeat viewing might enhance my opinion because of the film’s odd structure.

Seven Psychopaths is a giddy romp that’s disguising a lot more than the promotional ads may have you believe.  And it’s from an artist whom I hope will bless us with more twisted works in the coming years.

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