Seven Psychopaths is an ambitious, vivid and frequently eccentric black comedy. It’s the long awaited second film from Martin McDonagh whose earlier success, In Bruges, about hit-men waiting for their next assignment, was Oscar nominated in 2009.
Seven Psychopaths centres on Marty (Colin Farrell) an Irish alcoholic who’s struggling to write a movie titled ‘Seven Psychopaths’. Marty wants to create a refreshing, new take on gangsters and psychos that minimises violent cliches, but his buddy, Billy (Sam Rockwell), has other ideas and Marty quickly becomes mixed up in the world he is writing about.
As Marty is introduced to an array of psychopaths from Hans (Christopher Walken), who kidnaps dogs for a living, to Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a disturbed gangster who is the latest victim of Billy and Hans’ dog-snatching scam, Marty’s life spirals into chaos.
The movie’s striking first scene sees two typical gangsters - played by compelling talent from tv’s gangster smash Boardwalk Empire (Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) - tasked with a flamboyant shooting through the victim’s eyes. It’s a scene that’s reminiscent of 90s gangster movies and sets the tone for a film that is as much a reflection on the genre than anything else. Teamed with an opening shot of LA’s Hollywood sign there’s no escaping Seven Psychopaths’ self-reflexive intentions.
Hans highlights the crude treatment of women in Marty’s script-writing work, while Billy argues for heaps of outrageous comic violence. Seven Psychopaths is littered with comments like these on the nature and reality of Hollywood’s gangster genre. While Marty’s film vision sees a traditional gangster movie set-up turned on it’s head, with his lead characters making a road trip to the desert and reflecting on their lives, Billy thinks ‘that sounds like the stupidest ending to a movie I’ve ever heard’. McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths does relocate to the desert but, in true Hollywood style, its final act shifts far from Marty’s vision.
Seven Psychopaths is an ambitious film that balances the plot’s driving force - the dog-snatching events - with Marty’s creative processes. As McDonagh juggles with these two components, the film lurches between action, discussion and vignettes, as the characters’ escape unites with their movie planning and character sketches. It’s not an easy blend and Seven Psychopaths feels disjointed at times, but McDonagh makes this work, delivering entertainment and surprises. The film’s reflections are made accessible and McDonagh leaves his audience never quite sure whether they are watching his characters’ realities, or their imaginative musings.
Seven Psychopaths is blessed with a talented, take notice cast. Christopher Walken is a scene stealer as the caring Hans, who unravels into a distant and deeply disturbed character with a powerful and almost mythic backstory. One of the film’s strongest scenes comes as Hans cooly faces off against Woody Harrelson’s more openly unhinged Charlie. Tom Waits also gives a short but chilling performance as Zachariah, a serial killer of serial killers, that is captivating to watch. Farrell, whose movies have been hit and miss, makes the worn out stereotype of the Irish alcoholic work here, giving us a character whose naivety provides a refreshing counterbalance to the troubled psyches of those around him.
A smattering of decent laughs completes Seven Psychopaths - although the best of these are given away in the film’s trailer - and an eye to the film’s details reveals hidden comic gems including a shoot-out in front of a No Shooting sign.
Seven Psychopaths is an odd and frequently surprising black comedy that thoroughly entertains. Hans might say, ‘you’re the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting, they get tiresome after a while don’t they,’ but this is not the case for Seven Psychopaths, a film that cries out for a second viewing to unpick its endless references and inexhaustible detail.
Running Time: 110 minutes