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Non-Review Review: Seven Psychopaths

“Meta” is a concept that can be very rewarding, but it’s very difficult to do right. Often, it seems a little heavy-handed, a little self-indulgent. The art of writing fiction about fiction can easily descend into a writer documenting his own process, or become clever for the sake of being clever – offering an easy way out of virtually any dramatic situation, and allowing the script to answer pretty much any question with “because the writer says so.” Nevermind that movies about movie are prone to become a little self-congratulatory, or a little too self-focused. Seven Psychopaths never completely falls apart, but it occasionally struggles with these sorts of problems a little bit in the middle. Martin McDonagh has produced a very thoughtful and clever exploration of the traditional revenge film, but the execution feels a little bit too clunky at times.

I understand that this might be the point, but there are times when Seven Psychopaths feels like more of a narrative experiment than a compelling story in its own right. Still, it’s witty and funny and bold and smart and charming. Those attributes aren’t the easiest to come by, and certainly not in this combination. Seven Psychopaths might not be the incredible success that In Bruges was, but it’s a film that takes chances, and which tries to push both the genre and its audience a little out of their comfort zone. It is very hard not to respect that, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was fairly consistent charmed throughout its runtime.

The write stuff…

There’s a bit of a problem reviewing Seven Psychopaths, because so much of the movie hinges on a sudden shift in expectations that comes in the middle. The first half of the film is very much a clever Los Angeles crime film, with a screenwriter as its central character. It’s positioned as a story about cycles of violence, of hate and obsession and revenge. A seemingly minor criminal offence on the part of one of the lead characters – Billy, played superbly by an ever-fantastic Sam Rockwell – sets off a chain of events that spirals rapidly out of control. Upsetting a psychotic criminal by the name of Charlie, things begin to get progressively messier and uglier.

And then, well… things don’t necessarily go where you might expect. Which is, of course, the entire point of the screenplay. It’s very clear that McDonagh did not want to write a typical Hollywood revenge crime movie, and the second half is a superb exploration of the genre and how it works. Or, perhaps, how it doesn’t work. This shift is absolutely fascinating, and I don’t want to spoil anything about it. Once things take a detour, the script really kicks into high-gear, and Seven Psychopaths is an absolutely stunning exploration of a genre that has become a Hollywood standard.

Adopting a Hans off approach…

However, there’s a bit of trouble getting there. The first half of the film is set-up. However, watching the film, it almost seems like McDonagh isn’t really interested in that story. And, to be fair, he makes it explicit that he’s not. His lead character is a screenwriter named Martin who is writing a movie called Seven Psychopaths. While the film is gleefully ambiguous as to how much (or how little) of McDonagh has seeped through into Martin, the writer in the film almost immediately explains that he doesn’t want to tell a conventional, violent revenge saga. It feels quite safe to say that McDonagh is speaking through his lead on that count.

As a result, the opening half feels slightly surreal. McDonagh’s writing and direction are always sharp, and his cast is fantastic, but the film feels as though McDonagh is filtering his voice through something he’s not entirely comfortable with. It almost seems – at points – as if McDonagh is attempting to channel Tarantino in the first half of the film, with long conversations about nothing punctuated by acts of violence. In Bruges would suggest that McDonagh’s voice isn’t a million miles away from that of Tarantino, but it still feels a little odd. It’s almost as if the first half of the writer’s screenplay has been translated into a slightly different language, only for something to be lost in the transition.

Top dog…

Still, the first half is fun in its own way, even if not all the parts seem to click as they should. The story mechanics are solid, the cast are amazing and the humour is enough to keep the audience from getting bored. In many ways, the character of Martin almost feels like the script’s weak link. He is developed as a character – his alcoholism is treated with a reasonable amount of weight – but he doesn’t seem to gel with everything happening around him. Despite his friendship with Billy, he doesn’t seem integrated with the plot.

It’s Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken that carry the first half of the film – with a nice small role from Tom Waits. Walken hasn’t been this good in a while. While the familiar tricks and mannerisms are all present – to the point where I can imagine Hans will be a highly quotable character – there’s a certain pathos to Walken’s portrayal that we haven’t seen in a while. Beneath the piercing eyes, the distinctive voice and the iconic verbal tics, Walken creates a character who is at once incredible tragic, and yet impossibly dignified. Harrelson makes a nice psychotic gangster  with a strong affection for animals. (I do like how McDonagh suggests the depths of these monsters by suggesting they care far more about animals than they ever could about people.)

Putting the bunny back in the box…

And then there’s Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is absolutely stunning here as Billy. He’s Marty’s friend and a low-level hustler who seems constantly in over his head. He doesn’t seem to understand that his actions have consequences, and he seems to have no idea about how people are supposed to interact. Rockwell makes Billy simultaneously weirdly charming and undeniably sad. It’s a testament to McDonagh and Rockwell that Billy is never completely unlikeable, despite the damage that he causes to the people around him.

This is enough to sustain a first half that feels a little disjointed and uncertain. However, McDonagh’s screenplay really finds its legs in the second half. Some of the meta-referencing is a little awkward or on-the-nose, but it’s sharp enough that it works. In discussing Martin’s screenplay, each of the characters develops a clearly distinctive voice and outlook – each of the three central characters are coming from somewhere, and it makes sense. Much like In Bruges, the cast of characters seem like real people. Once Seven Psychopaths is free of the obligation to genre conventions and set-ups, it seems to come together perfectly. The entire second half of the film flows effortlessly and organically, in ways that are often surprising and alway engaging.

Some fun at the movies…

There is the rare problem with the film. Hans reads Martin’s script and protests about the female characters. They are all shallow and one-dimensional. As you have probably guessed, it counts as astute self-criticism from McDonagh. Despite occupying considerable poster space, Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko contribute little to the plot. You could argue that McDonagh is mounting a valid criticism of how films like this frequently treat their female characters, but it doesn’t quite get McDonagh off the hook. Given that so much of the second half of the film is about subverting and examining the tropes and clichés of revenge thrillers, it seems like a bit of a cop out for McDonagh to concede he has a problem with female characters and then never address it.

Part of me is more than willing to forgive the movie its missteps because of that wit and that intelligence. McDonagh’s screenplay might stumble out of the gate, and might rely a little too heavily on self-reference, but it is still a bold and clever piece of work. The revenge thriller has been a staple of cinema for quite some time, and it’s very hard to imagine that there’s anything new left to be discovered. Seven Psychopaths does offer something the feels new, that challenges the viewer a bit and puts everybody a little outside their comfort zone in a way that is charming and smart. It lacks the polish of In Bruges, but I still really liked it.

How many roads must a man walk down…?

Seven Psychopaths isn’t quite as great as In Bruges, but it is certainly more ambitious. It falters a little bit in translating that ambition to the screen, but it’s charming and funny enough that it’s easy to forgive a few slight errors. It’s smart, it’s witty and it’s well-acted from a wonderful ensemble. It might not be to everybody’s tastes, but it’s well worth a look.

5 Responses

  1. Looking forward to this 😀

  2. You seem to like puns.

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