Seven Psychopaths (2012) – Martin McDonagh

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I saw this twice in theaters.  Gotta love these dark, existential comedies.

Colin Farrell is Marty, a young writer struggling to put together a screenplay entitled Seven Psychopaths.  When Marty’s friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who runs a lucrative “dog-borrowing” business with his friend Hans (Christopher Walken), kidnaps a local gangster’s shih tsu, the three men find themselves entangled in trouble that will certainly provide fodder for Marty’s screenplay.

You can’t really go wrong with a cast like this.  Phenomenal acting all around.  The characters are archetypal — the alcoholic writer, the adventurous and impulsive best friend, the elderly religious man, the abusive Mafioso — but vulnerable and endearing in their own ways.  Christopher Walken is, predictably, enigmatic and taciturn as the Quaker Hans, but he eventually reveals himself to have a streak of (there’s really no other word for it) badass in him.  Woody Harrelson is frightening and brutal as mafia man Charlie Costello, but he has also a huge, weepy soft spot for his tiny fluffy dog.

Sam Rockwell’s performance is particularly noteworthy, perhaps because Billy is such an outrageous character — stubborn, reckless, rude, and yet oddly adorable and childlike.  He is a force of chaos in the film, reacting delightedly to the violence occurring around him.  When he senses danger heading his way, he does all he can to speed its progress.

Billy’s psychotic behavior is pitted interestingly against Hans’s steadfast religious devotion, and Marty’s dedication to pacifism.  The contrast of these men’s philosophies makes their attempted collaboration on the screenplay difficult, to say the least. (Marty suggests that the seven psychopaths sit and talk — no violence, no final shoot-out, just peaceful discussion.  “No shoot-out?!” Billy practically yells.)

The three main characters’ wildly different views also allow the film to take on a disparate tone, especially in relation to violence.  Some acts of violence are mentioned casually in passing; some are mourned; some are regarded as righteously vengeful; some serve a comedic purpose.  This film may on the surface appear merely to be a funny movie about psychopaths, but it is actually a hexaflexagon of messages, tenors, ideas, and stories within stories.

The most blatant way this is demonstrated is through the elements of metafiction.  Right away, we are primed to anticipate parallels between the screenplay Marty is writing and the film we ourselves are watching.  And parallels we get!  McDonagh thankfully steers clear of blatant connections and cheap one-liners, however; the relationship between the two fictions is actually very complex. The world of the screenplay and the world of the narrative are constantly in flux, fictional characters becoming real and real characters providing inspiration for fiction.  Rather than simply indulging in trite self-referential jokes, McDonagh uses the metafictional aspects of the film to examine the way that we create and pass on stories, especially in the context of violence.  The metafiction actually enhances the profundity of the film, rather than detracting from it.

There are elements of this film that I think border on absurdism.  When the three main characters drive out into the desert, they enter a state not unlike that of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot — alone in an empty landscape for an undetermined period of time, debating art and metaphysics, awaiting Charlie’s arrival.  Instead of dealing in meaningless, however, these characters have the opposite problem: too much meaning.  Every character, fictional or real, brings his own conflicting philosophy.  This ambiguity does allow the film to avoid being didactic, but in some ways I think there is too much ambiguity and too much going on.  McDonagh touches upon many big ideas: religion, the role violence plays in entertainment, the purposes violence can serve, representation of race and gender in stories.  And there isn’t necessarily enough room in one film for so many big ideas.  A lot of interesting things get glossed over because the film is so packed.

That being said, it is a ride.  Even if all the parts don’t tie neatly together the way you might expect, it’s certainly thought provoking.  Great characters, great acting.  A twisting, devilish screenplay with moments of tenderness.  And it’s funny as all hell.

(On a side note — the publicity for this film made me angry.  If you look at the poster, the figures are numbered 1 through 7 to indicate the seven psychopaths.  Not only are half of these characters not the “seven psychopaths” of the narrative (the film takes great care to identify the specific seven psychopaths as they show up), but also some of the characters on the poster actually have incredibly minor roles in the plot.  Namely, the two women — Abbie Cornish as Marty’s girlfriend Kaya, featured in two scenes; and Olga Kurylenko as Charlie’s girlfriend Angela, featured in one scene.

The film does acknowledge the marginal role of its female characters.  When Hans reads a draft of Marty’s screenplay, he points out that all of the women are either idiots or immediately killed.  “It’s a hard world for women,” Marty says, shrugging.  “Yeah, but most of the ones I know can string a sentence together,” Hans says.  It’s debatable whether recognizing this problem excuses the fact that all the women in the film are either idiots or dead.  All that aside, I just found it pretty dishonest to put these women on the poster, and to pretend that they play any significant role in the plot.  Come on.  They are not two of the seven psychopaths; on the contrary, they could be removed entirely from the film, and the events of the plot would continue without a hitch.)

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