Film Review: Seven Psychopaths
When your debut feature is 2008’s absolutely sublime In Bruges, it must be almost impossible to follow it up in your sophomore feature, and sadly, Irish screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh shows very few of the skills he used so magnificently on his first feature in Seven Psychopaths. Following a screenwriter (Colin Farrell) trying to pen a feature called (you guessed it) Seven Psychopaths, the film is an awkward jumble of ‘clever’ in jokes, shaggy dog stories and extreme violence, which ultimately leads nowhere, and is only counterbalanced by some of the finest acting performances of the year.
Marty Faranan (Farrell) is an alcoholic screenwriter who, in between trying to write his screenplay, interacts with criminal friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), and finds himself getting involved in Billy’s dog-napping business with Hans (Christopher Walken). How Marty and Billy became friends is never explained, but it’s certainly one of the odder pairings in recent cinema; Marty mostly acts like a jerk to Billy, and Billy, while naive and slightly sweet at times, is also a bit mental and tends to do many stupid things. One of the stupider situations he gets himself into is stealing the Shih Tzu (there are plenty of jokes revolving around that breed of dog’s name, don’t worry) of gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a dangerous man who soon comes after Billy, Marty and Hans, leading into bloody territory.
It’s hard to categorise where Seven Psychopaths goes wrong. It’s not necessarily a bad film; I laughed several times and the acting, which I’ll discuss in detail, is excellent. The problem is, it feels almost totally pointless. Most of the events in the film are stories and ideas for the screenplay, while the plot itself deliberately doesn’t go anywhere. McDonagh tries so hard to make jokes about a lack of shoot outs, and the lack of good female characters, that he seems to believe he can get away with having fairly mediocre action and dire female characters.
Imagine if you will, Charlie Kauffman’s Adaptation, a truly genius piece of filmmaking, if Charlie decided that because the character of himself is struggling to write a screenplay, he himself was allowed to make a bad screenplay, rather than the funny, lovely script we all know and love. Seven Psychopaths, essentially, feels like Adaptation as made by someone not quite as clever or funny as Charlie Kauffman.
Luckily, however, there is a lot of work to praise in this film. Even though perhaps they contribute to the film feeling essentially pointless, I did some of the screenplay ideas. The Quaker story, featuring a cameo from the endearing Harry Dean Stanton (and later paid off with a grisly Walken scene), is quite enjoyable, as are the numerous scenes featuring the Vietnamese Priest. Disappointingly, I can’t say the same for the backstory of Tom Waits’ character. Waits gives a great performance but is let down by some scenes featuring gore that is far too extreme for this film. I know the point of the screenplay is to mock Hollywood crime films, but there was no need to make it quite so over the top. Aside from Waits, the acting by nearly everyone is top notch.
Farrell has the toughest job, as he is the straight man reacting to the world around him, and rarely gets the big plays for laughs. It’s a solid performance, but compared to the loveably angry Ray in In Bruges, it can’t compare. Rockwell, meanwhile, is saddled with a character who can occasionally get immensely irritating and risible, but does some great work, and reminds everyone of just how phenomenal he was in Duncan Jones’ Moon.
Woody Harrelson, who rarely gets roles deserving of his talent, is absolutely brilliant in the psychopathic villain role. Rather than the clichéd shouting and over the top aggression, he plays it mostly as cool as he has in just about all his films, and gets numerous scenes to show off both his comic sensibilities, and just how much of a badass he can be.
However, stealing the show from everybody is Walken as the elderly criminal Hans. Collecting rewards to aid his terminally ill wife, Hans is a great character in that he remains totally calm almost all the time, even as events spiral out of control. Walken rarely gets big roles anymore (the last time I recall seeing him in a major role was 2003’s Catch Me If You Can, although I may be wrong), but here, he proves that he’s just as good as he was back in the days of The Dead Zone and King of New York. His character arc is surprisingly moving for a film like Seven Psychopaths, and I genuinely rank his performance as one of the greatest of his career, and one that should have been recognised by the Academy.
Though it will go down as a disappointment after the strange, dark, melancholic comedy drama of In Bruges (for my money, one of the best comedies of the noughties), there is a merit to watching Seven Psychopaths. The film itself is messy and jumbled and certainly not as clever as it wishes, but McDonagh still has enough talent as a writer to come up with some great lines, and there is enough great acting, from some absolutely terrific actors, to make this a perfectly solid, but not quite good enough, crime comedy.
By Harry Ford