Watching “Seven Psychopaths”
Watching “Seven Psychopaths” is a little bit like traveling back to the 1990s, when up-and-coming directors were eager to be crowned the next Quentin Tarantino, and “Fight Club” was all the rage.
Like “Pulp Fiction,” “Seven Psychopaths” is a stylish dark comedy that attempts to wed laughs to shocking violence, while also exploring weighty philosophical and religious questions about heaven and hell and the nature of evil. It is the second film from Martin McDonagh, who directed the cult hit “In Bruges,” which focused on a gangster in the midst of an existential crisis. “Seven Psychopaths” features villains and gangsters, but it tells the story of a screenwriter in crisis: Martin (Colin Farrell) is struggling to write a new screenplay. He wants to tell a non-violent gangster story that’s about peace and love, rather than men with guns; ideally, he tells his friends, the film will end not with a shoot-out, but with the characters driving off into the desert. Martin’s best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), tries to help him. Billy is a struggling actor who runs a dog kidnapping scam with his friend Hans (Christopher Walken): The men kidnap a dog, wait for the owner to post a reward, and then return the dog and collect the reward. One day Billy and Hans make the mistake of kidnapping the shih-tzu owned by gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), and Martin soon finds himself face to face with a scary real-life gangster who is not at all interested in ending things peacefully.
A simple plot synopsis really can’t describe what happens in “Seven Psychopaths,” which also tells the story of a masked killer who only murders gangsters, a Quaker who devotes his life to tormenting the man who killed his daughter, and a sad-sack serial killer, played by Tom Waits, who brings his pet rabbit everywhere he goes. “Seven Psychopaths” is a more ambitious work than “In Bruges,” but not a better one.
The film is overstuffed with characters and plot threads, and I felt as though McDonagh assembled a great cast and intriguing premise, and then couldn’t quite figure out how to turn it into a coherent story. It didn’t help that at every turn I was reminded of better movies, or TV shows, such as “Dexter,” which also focuses on a serial killer who only kills bad people, and takes the ethical and moral questions raised by such behavior much more seriously than “Seven Psychopaths.” The dog kidnapping plot immediately made me think of the book “Choke,” by “Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk, which also revolved around a far-fetched scheme for making money: choking in restaurants, in the hopes that a kindly stranger will save you and send you money and gifts. (The presence of Sam Rockwell, who starred in the film adaptation of “Choke,” made it hard not to think of the Palahniuk story.) Indeed, much of “Seven Psychopaths” seems inspired by the deranged world of Chuck Palahniuk, where you can steal, blow things up and fight people, but still be considered a good person. (Or at least a potentially good person.) And if you’re looking for films about struggling screenwriters, there are better ones: “Adaptations” and “Barton Fink” both come to mind.
What elevates “Seven Psychopaths,” and makes it worth seeing, is its stellar cast. Walken gives one of his best performances — even when the film is in danger of totally flying off the rails, Walken is terrific. Rockwell, an underrated actor who excels at playing oddballs, is also very good. I also enjoyed Harrelson, Harry Dean Stanton as the Quaker, Linda Bright Clay as Hans’ sick wife and, of course, Tom Waits. Farrell is good, but suffers a bit from playing the straight man.
In the end, “Seven Psychopaths” feels like a film that wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. I don’t doubt that McDonagh was interested in making a movie that asked big philosophical questions, and seriously considered the nature of violence and non-violence, but the film’s unrelenting violence, and the verve with which it’s staged, makes it tough to know what he’s trying to say. At its core, “Seven Psychopaths” embraces gangster cliches more than it subverts them, and never fully escapes the shadow of Tarantino. It’s a fun film to watch, but also an exasperating one, because it could have been so much more interesting.
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