Seven Psychopaths is a movie about making movies. More specifically, it’s a movie about writing movies, putting it in the same ballpark as Barton Fink and Adaptation, but with a few crucial differences. Its protagonist, for example, never holds himself up as some great artist, and once he gets into his story, he approaches his characters with zeal, if not a true sense of where those stories are going. Where Barton Fink and Adaptation (and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, which was technically about a playwright) are darkly comic, psychologically-intense mirrors of the men who wrote them, Seven Psychopaths leaves darkness out of the equation. There’s scores of violence here, buckets of blood and more than a few charred corpses, but never a sense that it’s weighing too heavily on the writer’s mind. He puts pen to paper, unconscious of the fact that he’s part of his story’s tapestry.
To begin, Irish screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell, standing in for director Martin McDonagh) is struggling to get through the first draft of his new movie, Seven Psychopaths. His agent is calling him, his girlfriend is barely tolerating him, but he’s got a movie about seven psychopath and not one good psychopath to write about. His friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), an aspiring actor, points out an article in the newspaper about a serial killer known as The Jack of Diamonds, who kills ranking members of organized crime syndicates. He also tells Marty about a Quaker (Harry Dean Stanton) who haunts the man who killed his daughter until, having suffered a complete mental breakdown, the killer commits suicide. He does this guaranteeing his own damnation, but figures he’ll never see the Quaker again. He’s wrong though, as the last thing he sees is the Quaker slitting his own throat. Two psychopaths down.
Despite Billy taking out an ad in the paper for psychopaths looking to tell their stories (a contrivance that leads to the always welcome Tom Waits telling the grisly tale of his and a lost love’s quest to go on a cross-country killing spree) and his wish to see the best damn movie called Seven Psychopaths possible, Seven Psychopaths isn’t about Marty’s quest to write a movie, but about friendship and bonding. After establishing Billy and his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) as a pair of dognappers who’ve abducted the prized Shih Tzu of an emotionally unstable mob boss (Woody Harrelson), the three head out to the desert to camp out, eat peyote, and finish Marty’s movie. Billy has designs on finishing the movie with a grand, climactic, somehow cathartic shootout involving the real and fictional psychopaths they’ve crossed paths with, but both Marty and Hans are pacifists who eschew violence and who want Seven Psychopaths to stand for something more.
As entertaining as the conversation between these three on the nature of violence (in life and in film) is, none of Seven Psychopaths‘ higher ambitions hold up to even cursory scrutiny. Marty speaks of Buddism at one point, but in this very western way that feels ill-considered and improperly applied. There’s a point to his discourse, and the way he, Billy, and Hans speak leading up to the dramatic final shootout is one of McDonagh’s many meta-textual winks and nods, but at no point does it feel like the cleverness of Seven Psychopaths is being put to any true purpose. With nowhere to go, the meta-textuality of Seven Psychopaths tends to distract, rather than enhance.
But Seven Psychopaths doesn’t need a smart hook to succeed. It does so largely on the merits of its characters—most of whom play like outsized urban legends—and the actors occupying them. There’s a kind of sweetness to Billy’s quest to cure his friend of writer’s sickness, to his encouraging Marty to lay off the booze and put pen to paper, an endless charm to Sam Rockwell’s manic energy. Marty’s frustrations and breakthroughs in writing Seven Psychopaths are perhaps the most realistic of any movie outside Adaptation. There’s something about the way he dreads hearing whatever story Waits’s character has to tell, followed by the flash of recognition once it becomes clear that he’s hearing a really, really good story.
The film belongs to Walken, who this year has put aside soulless comedies using him as a man with a funny voice to once again become an actor who has within him the very soul of strangeness. His brand of peculiarity is one that is rapidly disappearing from movies, replaced by increasingly plasticine imitations. Hans is no great stretch for Walken, but it has been awhile since a character of such conviction has stumbled into a bloodbath like Seven Psychopaths. When he talks about a non-violent resolution to Marty’s problem of the Vietnamese warrior who has come to America to kill the men responsible for the slaughter of his village, there’s weight to his proposal. After all, he’s sat across from the man who killed his wife. He didn’t have the urge to pull a gun.
Rating: Seven Psychopaths. Directed by Martin McDonagh. With Colin Farrell (Marty), Sam Rockwell (Billy), Christopher Walken (Hans), Woody Harrelson (Charlie), Michael Pitt (Larry), Michael Stuhlbarg (Tommy), Abbie Cornish (Kaya), Harry Dean Stanton (Man In Hat), Olga Kurylenko (Angela), Gabourey Sidibe (Sharice), and Tom Waits (Zachariah). Released October 12, 2012, by CBS Films.