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Film Review: Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths (2012; Directed by Martin McDonagh)

A golden rule of independent film: if one of the main characters is a screenwriter, you’re in for a fair bit of meta. In Seven Psychopaths, that screenwriter character is Marty (Colin Farrell with his Irish accent and related comic timing fully intact), an Irishman in Los Angeles struggling with alcoholism (“It’s part of your heritage!” a friend cheekily tells him) as well as with an unfinished, directionless screenplay called (of course) Seven Psychopaths.

Marty is also struggling with his disapproving girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) and his rather unhinged best friend, Billy Bickle (the reliably terrific Sam Rockwell), who is one of the things Kaya disapproves of most. The unpredictable Billy repeatedly interjects himself into Marty’s screenwriting efforts, often unwelcomed; his concepts are wild, tangential, violent, and formulaic, and Marty wants to resist Hollywood cliches. Billy also runs a dog-kidnapping scam with a disarmingly direct older gent names Hans (Christopher Walken). Billy snatches up the vulnerable pooches of rich Los Angelenos, and Hans sheepishly returns them and reluctantly accepts the rewards they offer. It’s a lucrative scheme, but it gets Billy, Hans, and the unwitting Marty into mortal danger when the wrong dog is stolen from the wrong dog owner.

This dog is Bonny, a chill ShihTzu whose bulging breed-standard eyes are often utilized for comic effect. The owner is Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a distinctly unchill gangster who does not hesitate to kill and cares for no one but Bonny. Once he traces the canine theft back to Billy and Hans, he pursues them and unwilling tagalong Marty with deadly intent, even as far as the isolated expanse of the desert for a final showdown.

This traditional synopsis of the film fails to fathom its nuances, internal connections, and mad digressions. The literate but iconoclastic McDonagh indulges the wild tangents of Billy Bickle’s disturbed imagination both literally and figuratively. Interspersed with the main plot described above are fascinating, funny, poignant, and often gruesome micronarrative vignettes focusing on the titular psychopaths.

These interwoven Psychopath Chapters are even accompanied by Tarantino-esque onscreen titles (“Psychopath No. 1”, “Psychopath #2”, so on). There’s the evocative, religiously-tinged tale of guilt, redemption, and judgment involving a stoic Quaker (played in the imagined sequence by Harry Dean Stanton) haunting the reformed murderer of his daughter. There’s a richly-written parable of sorts about a Vietnamese man in a priest’s frock threatening a prostitute that does not resolve anything like what you might expect. And Tom Waits shows up as Zachariah Rigby, an oddball with a bad haircut and a white rabbit who tells Marty his personal history as one half of a travelling duo of killers of serial killers.

But while seeming initially tangential or fantastical, these Chapters link directly in with the themes and the characters of the main plot until they are a part of it as well as corkscrewing bursts away from it. The main figures in the dog-kidnapping narrative are very much among the Seven Psychopaths Marty tries to write about; one of them, in fact, is more than one of the psychopaths.

The conceit, of course, is that all of these stories as well as the main dog-napping scenario are finding their way into a script for a movie that Marty is writing. This script, in Marty’s artistic ideal, eschews not only aforementioned Hollywood convention but violence as well. This ambition is laughable for a piece of work about psychopaths, and he is rightly ribbed for it. Indeed, the outlandish ultra-violence of McDonagh’s movie (another Tarantino nod) further mocks Marty’s pacifistic leanings. Nowhere is this more upfront than in Billy Bickel’s ludicrous, enthusiastic contribution to Marty’s screenplay during their sojourn in the desert: a comically overblown vision of a climactic action shootout in a cemetery involving excessive violence, melodramatic deaths, and gratuitous female nudity. Amidst the carnage, and after several female participants have been gunned down, Billy insists that Zachariah’s rabbit must escape unscathed, “Because you can’t let the animals die in a movie, just the women!”

This line is a satirical venting for McDonagh, directed in specific at hypocritical Hollywood censorship standards (which mandated that he avoid planned violence to Bonny) just as the scene is directed in general at those same standards and their resulting formulaic conventions. But it’s precisely the sort of irony that McDonagh likes to layer into his writing, and precisely the sort of contextual foundation he cleverly lays for his scurrilously off-colour dialogue and subject matter. The quintessential McDonagh joke offends on its face while acknowledging both the cause and the rightness of that offence; it will call out discriminatory assumptions while scoring a laugh off of them, and then inflate them to such outsized proportions so as to upend them again. Hence, a self-conscious line about the hypocrisy of preventing the depiction of violence towards animals but not towards women, placed in a film where several women are killed with brutal disregard, but later features a separate moral excoriation for such mysogynistic violence.

McDonagh’s humour thus walks a very fine line, or perhaps crosses and re-crosses it so often that the portent of this line is called into question. It is in this way similar to but more sophisticated than the borderline comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen (I’m thinking specifically of the moment in Borat that a man in a preposterously anti-Semitic parade costume squats and lays a “Jew-egg”, a surreal illustration of the nonsensical assumptions behind a pernicious discriminatory ideology). Like McDonagh’s previous (and better) film In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths is not just a comedy, turning to genuine character pathos and evocative passages (especially with previous collaborators Farrell and Walken), pregnant with the implications of religious faith, and conscious of the consequences of rampant cinematic violence.

Seven Psychopaths also demonstrates McDonagh’s burgeoning mastery of the visual craft of moviemaking, especially when the scene shift to the wide vistas of the deserts of the American West. Many theatre creators who shift to film transfer their static assumptions from the stage to the screen, but McDonagh is flowering in film like it’s the format he’s been chomping at the bit for the chance to work in. Seven Psychopaths is not his big-screen masterpiece (nor, ultimately, was In Bruges, despite its considerable appeal), but it is further compelling proof that Martin McDonagh’s idiosyncratic artistic sensibility may one day produce such a masterpiece and will likely produce more subversive pleasures until it does.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. July 21, 2013 at 6:00 am
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