Seven Psychopaths is a marketing nightmare. On the surface it’s a light hearted caper film, something along the lines of a Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. But it’s written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the mad genius of 2008’s difficult-to-market cult black comedy In Bruges. Much like that movie, what the plot is and what the movie turns out to be are two very different things, and a movie that on paper seems easily dismissed turns into sheer black comic genius.
Originally a story about a troubled screenwriter named Marty (Colin Farrell), the movie begins with him dealing with his alcoholism and trying to get some sort of progress on a script he’s writing called Seven Psychopaths. His friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), well meaning but kind of a lifelong loser, offers to help by giving him the stories of all these crazy people. Billy, however, isn’t making some of them up, wrapping Marty in a bunch of unsavory characters.
Billy’s also a dog thief, who kidnaps people’s pets in order to have his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) return them to the owners for a reward. They split the take, and make a tidy living right up to the point where Billy takes the dog of mob boss Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who takes it as a personal attack on him and swears vengeance on anyone who might be connected to the case. Thus Marty, Billy, and Hans all end up on the bad end of an effort to kill them to reclaim the dog Billy had decided he wants to keep, even as Marty’s screenplay begins to mesh with the world of crazy psycho killers he’s encountering.
So the first half of the movie, as pointed out by the three as they flee the city and try to workshop Marty’s screenplay to alleviate boredom, is the setup for this great crime drama, full of vengeance and violence. The second half, as Marty wistfully wishes for, is a moment where the three of them head out into the desert to talk about what happened and work on the script, where the film begins to spiral into a series of possible realities as the three men try to take control of a narrative that has grown beyond them, even as almost certain death chases after them.
The thing that’s hard to quite explain is the joy of the two stories intertwining, a madcap but very solid crime story and this meta-narrative about film and writing and the creative impulse. There are plenty of times where the characters step outside of the story to talk about this fictionalized version being written about themselves, a commentary that takes on the sort of character-revealing honesty of Shakespearian asides. And for anyone who loves talking about movies and genre cliches, there’s plenty of that alone to love. This is in more than one way a spiritual companion to Charlie Kaufman’s fantastic Adaptation.
It’s also incredibly funny and emotional. McDonagh has an ability, also showcased in In Bruges, of making a movie with real stakes and very touching moments and wringing both sadness and comedy out of it. This is a movie where people you like die, and people you don’t like are made sympathetic, and every joke comes on the heels of a heart-strings moment. That emotional complexity is what makes it great, and it also means that each of the actors in the movie is swinging for the fences with performances that rise above what they’re usually typecast as.
That’s especially true of Farrell, who carries the movie with a befuddled sad-sack gentleness that is both noble and infuriatingly childish. But just as much special mention needs to be given to Christopher Walken, who offers up a character with real and complex motivations, a ton of backstory, and an old-man grace that allows him to be both charming and stubborn in just the right ways. Walken, especially as he ages, often struggles to break out of being a caricature. This is a movie that reminds us firmly of why he became famous enough to fall into that trap. He’s magnificent.
And magnificent is what I want to leave my impressions of the movie with. It’s madcap and requires that people bring their A-game as audiences, because it pulls no punches (both in jokes and violence) but offers a wealth of reward if you’re willing to come along for the crazy ride. And nobody makes movies like this, strange genre send-ups that also provide some greater sense of themselves and fiction in general. Not only is Seven Psychopaths the funniest movie I’ve seen all year, it’s also one of the smartest.
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