Martin McDonagh’s most recent movie is called Seven Psychopaths because there are allegedly seven psychopaths in it. This number could be disputed, however. One of the psychopaths doesn’t do any psychopathic killing, but merely stands around and looks scary – so he might not qualify as a psychopath at all. Two more of the psychopaths prove to be the same character, while another is played in different parts of the film by two different actors. Early on, there’s a brief appearance by an additional psychopath who isn’t one of the official seven, a psychopath who finds religion and gives up killing. And later, the film has cameos by three more surplus psychopaths, including the real-life Zodiac Killer who terrorised northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Therefore, Seven Psychopaths could as easily have been called Five, Six, Eight, Eleven or Twelve Psychopaths. Just saying.
McDonagh’s previous film was 2008’s In Bruges, the story of two hit-men who hole up in the titular Belgian city after a botched job and endure boredom, uncertainty, guilt, existentialist angst, annoying American (and Canadian) tourists, a debauched dwarf and a vengeful gangster boss, and it was an unheralded but absolute cinematic joy. Seven Psychopaths begins by deconstructing its predecessor. It shows two more hit-men, not dissimilar to the ones played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleason in In Bruges, waiting to carry out a job by the Hollywood Reservoir above Los Angeles and killing time by discussing the logistics of shooting people through their eyeballs. Once McDonagh gets those hit-men out of the way, however, he zooms in on an Irish writer called Marty, played by Farrell, who’s attempting, fruitlessly, to write a screenplay for a Hollywood studio. The gimmick of Marty’s script is that it contains – you guessed it – seven psychopaths.
Trying to help Marty with his script is his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), an aspiring actor who’s blessed with boundless enthusiasm but zero common sense. Later, Billy’s business partner Hans (Christopher Walken) contributes some ideas too. Billy and Hans, it transpires, are actually partners in crime because they do a profitable line in kidnapping dogs. After the distraught owners have stuck up missing-posters and offered money, they return the dogs and claim the rewards. Then, unwittingly, they kidnap a Shih Tzu called Bonnie, who’s the beloved pet of murderous gang-boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson). And suddenly, thanks to his two associates, Marty finds himself in more intimate contact with a real-life psychopath than he’d ever bargained for.
Just to make things a little bit worse, Billy also tries to aid Marty with the research for his screenplay by putting an advert in a newspaper asking any psychopaths living in the Los Angeles area to get in touch. As a result, while the situation with Charlie gets seriously out of hand, they receive a visit from a mysterious character called Zachariah, cradling a white rabbit and played by Tom Waits, who has some macabre tales to tell them.
So far, so Quentin Tarantino-esque. However, what makes Seven Psychopaths extra-special is that its main narrative is peppered with stories-within-a-story, whereby Hans and Billy’s suggestions for the script, and Marty’s own ideas for it, are dramatized on screen. This allows McDonagh to poke fun at the not-very-high standards of the typical Hollywood product these days. A sequence showing the climax of the script as Billy envisions it is bloodily, stupidly and hilariously over-the-top, though to be honest it’s probably how a normal Hollywood studio would climax a film about seven psychopaths.
This self-reflexive approach also allows McDonagh to deflect possible criticisms of his film by making those criticisms of it himself, first. For example, when Walken chides Farrell for writing his female characters so poorly, McDonagh is surely acknowledging the fact that the film’s two leading actresses, Abbie Cornish and Quantum of Solace’s Olga Kurylenko, have little to do besides provide some pleasing eye-candy.
Seven Psychopaths isn’t quite the film that In Bruges was. Despite the Beckettian ennui that pervaded it, In Bruges had a relentless narrative drive. Gleason and Farrell arrived in Bruges, pottered around, encountered key characters and locations and then halfway through things kicked into life when their volcanically-tempered and thoroughly pissed-off boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrived in town too – thereafter, like the jaws of a mantrap closing, the various characters and locations meshed together to create the film’s long, exciting, funny and bloody finale. Seven Psychopaths lacks that plot momentum and if anything it turns the narrative-shape of In Bruges back-to-front. Early on there are characters and incidents all over the place. Later, however, things slow down and a stillness descends over the film.
An additional advantage that In Bruges had over Seven Psychopaths was the city of Bruges itself, which gave the film such a gorgeous and distinctive backdrop that, in a story full of memorable characters, it seemed almost the most memorable character of all. Los Angeles doesn’t achieve the same effect in Seven Psychopaths, although a Californian friend who watched the movie with me did comment that McDonagh had managed to make L.A. look “nicer than it really is.”
Nonetheless, by its own terms, Seven Psychopaths is very good. Even during scenes where things could have dragged a little, the entertainment value remains high thanks to the laugh-out-loud qualities of McDonagh’s dialogue and the engaging eccentricities of his characters. The writing is reinforced by the performances. Harrelson and Waits aren’t really called upon to do much other than appear menacing and grizzled respectively – which both of them do capably. Farrell, whom I’d never really rated as an actor before I saw In Bruges, gives another excellent performance here. He’s as mouthy and as harassed-seeming as he was in the earlier film although his Marty character is much more grown-up. The man-child qualities that made Farrell so funny in In Bruges are here transferred to Rockwell’s Billy. Rockwell has to balance being loveable with being strangle-able, a feat that he pulls off with aplomb. We can understand why, despite the exasperation he causes Marty (and he causes him a lot), Marty still regards him fondly.
Perhaps the best performance, however, comes from Walken as the gentle and God-fearing Hans (although his religiosity doesn’t stop him dog-napping, which I assume is a sin). He’s almost Job-like in the punishment that McDonagh’s script visits upon him and he bears it with a melancholy calmness and stoicism that’s truly endearing.
Incidentally, it says a lot about the film’s unpredictability that although Christopher Walken is in it, and although it’s choc-a-bloc with psychopaths, Walken is actually the nicest character by far on screen. If Seven Psychopaths was the sort of Hollywood movie that it spends its time satirising, Walken would no doubt be doing more conventionally Walken things – strutting around, for instance, and shooting people point-blank in the head.