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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Bright Star (2009) – Jane Campion

ImageBen Whishaw and Abbie Cornish bring to life the historic love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, which is cut short by Keats’ early death.  Get ready for a good cry.  And you will have no one to blame but yourself, because you knew the ending going into it.

I can’t imagine that it’s is an easy task to portray a Romantic poet as an exciting and appealing hero.  I’ve seen it done successfully in Shakespeare In Love, but Whishaw’s Keats—pale, slender, brooding, and soft-spoken—does not have the manic charisma of Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare.  John has his own enigmatic attraction, certainly, but in the end it is Fanny who really carries the film.  She’s introduced to us as a seamstress, stitching all of her own clothing by hand, and her creations are both impressive and absurd.  We see her first in a bright red and yellow combination—later in a frock with a “triple mushroom collar”.  She wears the clothing confidently, and enthusiastically describes it to anyone who will listen.  When she meets John, she sends her younger sister Toots (Edie Martin) (so cute!!!) to buy his new book of poems.  Toots tells the bookseller, “My sister has met the author, and she wants to read it for herself to see if he’s an idiot or not.”

Fanny’s strong-willed personality is, of course, ultimately softened, and we see the tender side of her as she and John fall in love.  I think that Cornish’s performance convincingly captures that feeling of first love—the euphoria, the desperate longing, the feeling that you’re about to die all the time due to extreme emotion.  She lies sick in bed for five days after John leaves for the summer, waiting for a letter from him.  When she finally receives one, she is deliriously happy.  She lies down in the field, kisses Toots and tells her she loves her.  I especially loved this moment because I found it so true to life: the idea that while happy in love, everything—even your annoying little sister—seems beautiful and precious.

There is, of course, a childishness and a rashness to Fanny’s passion.  She throws a veritable temper tantrum when she finds out John is leaving for the summer, crying and telling him that she hates him.  She tells her mother, “When I don’t hear from him, it’s as if I’ve died.  As if the air is sucked out from my lungs, and I’m left desolate.  But when I receive a letter, I know my world is real.”  We hear her and are moved by her passion, but we also can’t help but chuckle.  She is so dramatic and so young.

However, our knowledge of John’s impending death puts a dark spin on Fanny and John’s naive young love.  We know all too well that Fanny’s childish tears over a summer apart or a delayed letter will ultimately give way to tears of very adult grief.  I think this is a big part of the reason the film works.  There is an interesting and terrible tension throughout the film between youth and death.  John writes to Fanny in a letter, “I almost wish we were butterflies and lived but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”  Fanny reads this and fills her bedroom with butterflies.  But, sadly, in a way John and Fanny really are like the butterflies of which he writes, living only in mere moments together.

This is a heavily romantic and stylized film, and it just barely steers clear of being seriously cliche.  John and Fanny spend a lot of time gazing into each other’s eyes and reciting poetry.  There is plenty of letter-writing, weeping, and walking back and forth across the heath.  And yet, there is something so charming about it, and so genuine.  If you are a poetry lover, or just want to enjoy some good old-fashioned nineteenth-century romance, it is definitely worth the tears.