There are approximately eight people shot in the head, three burned alive, two with slit throats and at least one former Bond girl ruthlessly killed via close-range gunshot to the stomach in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s new film, “Seven Psychopaths.” Suffice to say, this movie has more blood per square inch than perhaps even Tarantino’s more gruesome efforts. But, like the films of that pulp violence auteur, “Seven Psychopaths” is also, for the large part, a comical farce.
When McDonagh’s previous film, “In Bruges,” was released in 2008, it received near-universal praise for its introspective look inside the mind of a rueful killer. In what is probably his most nuanced role, Colin Farrell brooded over the merits of murder with a simultaneous sense of authentic pain and misanthropic humor. With equal parts dark and light, it was a refreshing take on the typically heartless, shoot ‘em up genre.
In “Seven Psychopaths,” Farrell returns but not as a killer. He plays Marty, an Irish screenwriter with a penchant for alcohol who’s working on his latest film — what do you know? — titled “Seven Psychopaths.” Yes, McDonagh has, like Charlie Kaufman before him, written himself and his life into his own movie. However, Marty’s character is hopefully where all associations with real life end, for the rest of the plot is so hare-brained (quite literally, as Tom Waits’ character carries a rabbit) that it could only be fiction.
You see, Marty is friends with Billy Bickle (another not-so-subtle allusion to “Taxi Driver” protagonist Travis Bickle). Billy (Sam Rockwell) makes a living with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) by stealing dogs and then collecting the reward. It’s a plan that’s worked out well for both of them until Billy steals the wrong dog — an adorable shih tzu named Bonnie, owned by cutthroat crime boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson). So the threads of your usual heist/action flick are drawn as Marty becomes embroiled in a seedy underworld that goes beyond his imagination.
Except the plot isn’t really beyond his or anybody’s conception. Nearly half of the film is spent watching characters envision possible plots for Marty’s script — a huge Mexican standoff in a cemetery, a Vietnamese man hell-bent on revenge, a film with “just humans talking,” etc. All of these do make it into “Seven Psychopaths.” And while this makes the film exciting and often hilarious, these numerous tropes, like the numerous psychopaths named in the title, render the movie schizophrenic instead of satirical.
What McDonagh is doing here is not surprising or shocking. He’s taking the mickey out of the action cliches we’re so accustomed to. But, at the same time, he’s trying to create a multidimensional, far-too-meta meditation on heaven, hell, violence, friendship and life along the same lines as “In Bruges.” Sadly, it doesn’t work.
There are moments of profound humor, as in the instance when Walken’s character takes peyote. There are also moments of profound sadness where Farrell carries most of the emotional heft. However, the film is so preoccupied with itself, oscillating between those two extremes — slow melancholia and amped-up action — that it never finds a comfortable balance between the two as McDonagh did so brilliantly in “In Bruges.”
Near the end of the film, Hans, Marty and Billy are driving through the picturesque landscape of Joshua Tree National Park when one of them says, “the first half (of the film) should be the perfect setup for a revenge … the rest … just humans talking.” With “Seven Psychopaths,” McDonagh gives us both of these halves, only never a full film. Sadly, it’s all setup and talking, with minimal payoff.