When Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh made his feature debut as director with 2008’s In Bruges, it announced him as one of the most potent new voices in modern cinema. It told the story of two low-level Dublin mobsters (Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell) laying low in Belgium after a hit gone terribly wrong. Propelled by its abrasive, hilarious and moving dialogue, In Bruges showed McDonagh’s talent for playing with character expectations; it was a quirky buddy movie that just so happened to be about violent men.
With his highly anticipated sophomore effort, McDonagh has made another movie about male friendships and violence. Farrell is back and he plays Martin, an Irish screenwriter living in Hollywood and dealing with a severe case of writers’ block. At this point, alarm bells should be ringing: if you’ve ever had to proof read works written by creative writing students (as we have), you will be very familiar with terribly-written stories about people with writers’ block. However, the film avoids becoming too ‘inside Hollywood’ and self-congratulatory by seemingly making Farrell’s writer a bit of a hack, desperately scratching away terrible story ideas like “Amish Psychopath” and “Buddhist Psychopath”.
When he’s stuck on page one of a screenplay entitled ‘Seven Psychopaths’, Farrell becomes desperate for any sort of inspiration. But he can hardly have predicted exactly how much inspiration is about to fall into his lap: his actor friend Sam Rockwell also works as a petty criminal, stealing dogs and returning them for hefty reward. He’s helped along the way by Christopher Walken, a seemingly-centered man with a dark past. When Rockwell ends up kidnapping the beloved Shih-Tzu of a terrifying crime boss (Woody Harrelson), it’s just the first domino in a long line of convoluted plot turns that involve Tom Waits as a rabbit-loving psycho, a fictional Vietnamese suicide bomber and a masked killer who deposits playing cards at the scenes of his crimes.
Farrell’s character states that he wants to write a movie about psychos that isn’t about violence and shootouts, but about love and peace and whatnot. While this is not necessarily that film, it does ask some pretty probing questions about our society’s fascination with murders, violence and psychopathic anti-heroes. If Dirty Harry actually existed, would we actually want to hang out with him? Would we take him out for a beer? After all, he did kill a lot more people than was strictly essential.
While the film’s structure does become slightly challenging, the sharp dialogue and quirky performances are never less than engaging. Even as the story’s momentum shifts down in a final half hour that deconstructs the hell out of the movie, the film still manages to delight consistently. We’re reminded again of how good Colin Farrell can be when he’s not asked to play bland action heroes; Sam Rockwell still remains Hollywood’s most under-tapped human resource; and Christopher Walken continues to chew dialogue in that uniquely Christopher Walken way. As a meta-physical take on the nature of movies, McDonagh’s film doesn’t quite have the sophistication or depth of Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation (with which it shares a lot of DNA). But as a picture that rejects violence in cinema while simultaneously reveling in it, Seven Psychopaths gleefully manages to have its cake and eat it before blowing it to heaven with a double-barrelled shotgun.