Seven Psychopaths (2012)
119 min., rated R.
The self-explanatory "Seven Psychopaths" is populated with just that, or maybe more, and it's Irish playwright-turned-writer-director Martin McDonagh's answer to Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" and his brutal, enjoyably lunatic follow-up to 2008's great "In Bruges." Wickedly funny, slyly clever, and dementedly off-center, this blackly comic crime noir skips through genres while deconstructing them as a meta take on the art of screenwriting and a tribute to movies.
Struggling with the drink, screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) has a title for his new script—"Seven Psychopaths"—but has trouble creating the seven crazies, and wants the story to be life-affirming, not violent. Helping Marty find inspiration is his best friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), who's an actor but mostly runs a dog kidnapping business with Hans (Christopher Walken), where they return the pooches and collect the reward. Unfortunately, this time, they have kidnapped a Shih Tzu named Bonny, who belongs to unstable mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Marty happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and gets pulled into Billy's dirty dealings. All the while, there is a serial killer of mafia members at large known as the "Jack of Diamonds" (he leaves a playing card after each hit). Then again, fortunately for Marty, his script begins to practically write itself.
"Seven Psychopaths" might have been a self-satisfied, off-putting Tarantino copycat in the wrong hands, but McDonagh and his cast make it all feel fresh and distinct. In the opening, two hired guns (Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) kill time chitchatting about whether or not John Dillinger was shot in the eyeball before getting ready to kill a passing woman but end up being the victims of another assassin instead. With sharp writing and the proper framing, we're thrown for an offhanded loop in the introduction of the first psychopath. From there, the arch tone is consistent and always well-handled with black comedy and menace, especially when the film wanders onto tangents and Marty's story sequences. There's a wildly surprising montage in which an admitted bunny-loving psychopath named Zachariah (Tom Waits) accepts Billy's wanted ad and tells Marty how he was a serial killer of serial killers (The Zodiac included). Other memorably twisted set pieces, which could be short films themselves, involve Harry Dean Stanton as a religious man hell-bent on making a Buddhist/Amish/Quaker killer feel the regret of murdering his daughter, as well as a revenge-driven Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen) in a hotel room with a hooker. Later on, there's a deliriously over-the-top cemetery-set climax of what could happen in Marty's script, based on Billy's telling around a campfire.
Perhaps the storytelling is too convoluted for its own good, but McDonaugh knows it, and has enough tricks in his arsenal, the twisty-turny layer cake of a plot zigging where you expect it to zag. By the time Marty expresses that he wants his screenplay to have no shoot-outs or payoffs and suggests "the lead characters should just drive into the desert, pitch a tent, and talk for the rest of the movie," that's more or less where the film goes but with some added gunfire and interesting talk. Although McDonagh does overextend his "shoot-out" climax a bit, the comic, violent energy rarely wanes. And in one aspect of the story, we are omniscent of a character's true psychopathic identity before it's actually revealed to everyone else, but it's fun watching the other characters find out on their own.
Farrell is virtually the straight man here, and since he was so hilariously mean-spirited and self-pitying in "In Bruges," McDonagh allows the real psychopaths to have all the fun. Rockwell flourishes in manic, unpredictably nutso mode: he's a hoot. And yes, his last name is a nod to "Taxi Driver." Walken reminds us of why he is Christopher Walken, not only from being in control of his brilliantly eccentric, clipped delivery (just listen to how he says "cravat") but bringing heartbreak to the forefront after Charlie pays a visit to Hans' cancer-suffering wife Myra (a lovely Linda Bright Clay). Harrelson has a ball playing the nuttiest and most despicable psychopath of all, and he creates so much carnage from stopping at nothing to retrieve his precious Shih Tzu. Sole females Abbie Cornish, as Marty's "c-word" girlfriend Kaya, and Olga Kurylenko, as Billy and Charlie's shared girlfriend Angela, are purposefully undeveloped and given little to do and say before they're either dropped or killed off. When Billy and Hans discuss Marty's screenplay, they comment on how his "women characters are terrible."
Does it have as much lasting power as "In Bruges"? Probably not, because that film was tighter and held more emotional weight, even when it expertly combined dark humor and vivid violence. But if you don't have a threshold for gleeful, literally cutthroat bloodshed and self-awareness, "Seven Psychopaths" will be a fun meal for sickos who know they're just watching a movie. And for the non-sickos out there, they'll be pleased to know that no doggies are harmed.
Grade: B +