Seven Psychopaths – Review

tt1931533Seven Psychopaths – Review

Film Review by FilmFellaDarren – 7.4/10

Back in 2008, English director Martin McDonagh set himself up as a director to watch with his inventive and darkly comic crime thriller In Bruges.  Four years later, his sophomore effort comes in the shape of another wryly comic edition to the crime genre.

There are lots of similarities between his cult classic debut and this new film. Most notably, he again casts Colin Farrell as a troubled protagonist inadvertently embroiling himself in a world of organised crime he is ill-equipped to deal with.  Farrell plays Marty, an Irish screenwriter suffering a chronic case of writers’ block whilst he tries to create his screenplay Seven Psychopaths.  His oddball acting friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) decides to help him out by setting up a meeting with a strange man (Tom Waits) who he thinks may well make a good character for Farrell’s screenplay.  He also accidently becomes in league with Hans, a middle aged dognapper (Christopher Walken) who has mistakenly stolen the Shih Tzu dog of an unhinged local crime kingpin named Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Farrell is no longer just writing about psychopaths, he’s rubbing shoulders with them, several in fact but will he survive long enough to finish that screenplay?

This is an assured second film from McDonagh; you can really feel the director is striving for an original take on a well-worn crime genre, but this time his film is a mixed bag. It veers manically from the sublime to the ridiculous and McDonagh doesn’t seem quite sure whether he wants to make a fleet-footed crime comedy or an edgy thriller laced with black comedy. Many people will be blown away by Seven Psychopaths and consider it to be the original edgy black comic thriller it so wants to be, others will find that the tone is a little inconsistent and it doesn’t make nearly as slick a transition from warped comedy to tense drama as it thinks it does.  The opening is clever, dark and funny, but then in the next moment there is a scene of such sobering violence so unfunny and serious that it makes it impossible to laugh at the following perverse comedy shenanigans the film moves towards, for quite some time afterwards. The film follows this pattern a number of times and the dubious shifts in tone stand out a mile.

There are plenty of sparks of invention on display with enough signs of creativity to suggest that McDonagh is still a director to watch. But for all its lively plot developments, it suffers from the fact that it’s all based around a pretty broad and tired comic plot: ordinary folk stealing the dog of the mafia. It is in every sense a shaggy dog story. The canine-capturing narrative arc does a great deal to discredit Woody Harrelson’s villain. There are so many scenes of him pining for his pampered pooch that he loses any sense of menace early scenes built up for him; he becomes a bit of a joke, but not a particularly funny one. He’s not nearly as well-rounded or memorable a villain as Ray Fiennes’ character in In Bruges. Whereas Fiennes’ character made that film, it’s Harrelson’s ridiculous character that breaks this one.  Harrelson seemed a fine piece of casting but McDonagh accentuates his softness to such a degree the whole narrative completely unravels.

The rest of the cast, however, do a far better job at creating interesting characters. Sam Rockwell’s considerable charm brings a great deal to the film. Anything perversely comic that works in the film goes through him. It’s also the best role and performance Christopher Walken has done in years. He is the most three-dimensional character in the film; he has the most fascinating backstory and his character is undoubtedly the most interesting creation in the film.  And Tom Waits’ turn is delightfully demented and weird; he walks around muttering lines in his distinct gravelly voice, looking menacing despite the fact he is bizarrely stroking a white rabbit in all his scenes.  Farrell is again solid in a role that has become his trademark: the everyman struggling to cope with being dangerously out of his depth.

The one aspect of the film that definitely does work is the Hollywood satire that underpins the plot and the film within a film concept.   Farrell’s screenwriter is clearly depicted as a man in the industry who has no idea about how to write a coherent screenplay. This is a man who will hobble together a story from random anecdotes his mad mate tells him, without even verifying his sources.  The narrative of the film has a deliberately episodic feel to capture the sense that both this film and Farrell’s screenplay within are a little loosely plotted, more than little bit rickety and not exactly tightly woven together.

There’s a self-reflective knowing tone that seems to mock the film and the industry as a whole. At one point a character gives a critique of how screenwriters make female characters weak and disposable, you can practically see everyone winking at the camera as this is a film that doesn’t exactly have any substantial female parts and the female roles that are in the film are very throwaway.  There’s also a scene that is clearly the mad ramblings of a damaged mind, the stuff of nonsense that you’d instantly dismiss as too silly to turn into a film scene. The film actually creates this scene even as the dialogue is ruling it out as absurd. As a result, the visual sequence that could not work in any other film becomes the film’s most arch and luridly memorable action sequence. There’s a strong suggestion that scriptwriters can get away with even the most insanely ludicrous scene if you have the budget to create it. Yep, the Hollywood satire is definitely the highlight of this funny but flawed film.

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About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

2 Responses to Seven Psychopaths – Review

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Great review here Darren. I’ve been wanting to see this for ages. I love me a bit of Tom Waits and it’s great to hear he delivers. Doesnt sound too promising when you mention that Harrelson breaks this when Fiennes made In Bruges. That’s a shame. I wa hoping for another villain like Fiennes.

    • Filmfella Darren says:

      Thanks for stopping by and reading my review Mark. I’ll be interested to hear your opinion on the film. This film came out in Taiwan months ago, so I was lucky enough to see it before any press coverage hit. I felt after seeing it that it was a film that would divide opinion and I think I was right. The script is witty and clever, but the director does use the self-referential humour a little too often. The film satirizes the Hollywood movie clichés that the film itself knowingly makes. Does the humour allow it to get away with making such narrative misjudgements? I’m not so sure because although it’s funny, it is hard to engage with the plot or care about the characters, since it all seems a bit of one of those nudge nudge, wink, wink type films. It is heavily influenced by Charlie’ Kaufman’s humour in Adaptation. I thought it was Adaptation meets Kiss, Kiss Bang Bang, but I heard someone describe it as Adaptation meets Tarantino which sums up the film accurately. Look out for my Life of Pi review which should be up soon.

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