Seven Psychopaths: Of puppy dogs and exploding heads
Martin McDonagh is a very clever man. If his status as one of the more acclaimed playwrights of his generation weren’t enough to prove that, he also went and made In Bruges, one of the better mergings of violence, profanity and religious ponderings to reach cinemas in recent years (plus, it has Colin Farrell karate chopping dwarf actor Jordan Prentice, so there’s that). He knows how to write crackling dialogue, and more importantly, how to twist the rules of the genres he works in to suit his more contemplative ends, without holding back on the things that make that genre work in the first place.
It’s only natural, then, that Seven Psychopaths is a very clever movie. Some are going to say it’s too clever — that’ll happen any time you explicitly comment on the medium you’re working in, really. And Seven Psychopaths does comment on its medium. A lot. It stars Colin Farrell as a screenwriter named Martin, who is suffering through a bout of writer’s block (although the rampant alcoholism means there should be a parenthetical question mark after “suffering”), which is only a surname shy of Charlie Kaufman writing himself into Adaptation. Martin is writing a script called Seven Psychopaths, but he only has a title, which is enough to get people excited about the project but not really a lot to work with.
Fortunately, his buddy Billy (Sam Rockwell at his most charming, which, man, that’s pretty charming) has a couple ideas, and when those run out, he also has a plan, which doesn’t need to be discussed here. And on top of that, he has a tendency to attract psychopaths, like the rage-filled crime boss (Woody Harrelson) whose shih tzu Billy kidnapped with his partner in crime Hans, played by Christopher Walken with all the usual Walken-isms, and yet somehow more affecting than usual.
Given the film’s title, it hardly seems worth mentioning that Seven Psychopaths is an extremely violent movie. But it is. There’s immolation, shotgun blasts to the head and enough squibs to feed a family of three for a month, assuming fake blood has nutritional content. At the preview screening, it was enough to make one audience member walk out and loudly boo the film (she literally yelled out “Boo,” which I can only assume was pretty satisfying). It also has the most reaction shots of cute dogs that you’ll see this side of Beverly Hills Chihuahua — not to mention Rockwell’s puppy dog eyes. It strikes a balance, is what I’m saying, with more than enough humour to offset the violence, assuming you can stomach the violence in the first place.
It’s the cleverness that’ll really serve as the litmus test here, though. McDonagh is well aware of every cliche his script flirts with, and openly addresses many of them while talking about the script-within-the-film. It doesn’t quite go full-out Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with its narration, but there are sequences that come darn close, including a staged reading of a climactic gun fight that might just be my favourite scene in a movie this year. It’s all about as explicitly metatextual as it gets, which means it doesn’t sneak up on you quite the way that In Bruges did — this is a movie that wears its depth on its surface, if that makes sense. But subtlety’s not the only way to make your point. And sometimes the direct approach is more fun anyway.