One of the highlights of this year’s Midnight Madness at TIFF was SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS by Martin McDonagh, director of IN BRUGES. It has a crazy cast: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits, Olga Kurylenko, and Gabourey Sidibe, and an even crazier plot involving dog-napping, gangsters, and a menagerie of psychopaths real and imagined. If you liked IN BRUGES, you’ll probably get a kick out of SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS -- it also balances a twisted sense of humor with violence, and has that same “what the fuck” feel.
Colin Farrell plays Marty, a writer who may or may not be alcoholic, but is having trouble even starting his next screenplay. Meanwhile, is friends Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken) are slowly drawing him into their dognapping scheme, where they steal people’s dogs and return them for the reward. Billy desperately wants to help Marty write his screenplay, about seven psychopaths, and even comes up with a few clever ideas, despite being an all-around dumbass. But things really go off the rails when Billy and Hans kidnap the dog of Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a true psychopath, who kills people randomly for screwing up, or even just inconveniencing him.
Well, that’s one route to the hijinks, the other being the fact that Billy takes out an ad in the newspaper asking psychopaths to get in touch with Marty to help with his screenplay. This leads to such awesomeness as Tom Waits showing up at their door as “a serial killer who kills serial killers.” We follow parallel stories, the real-world clusterfuck lives of Billy and Hans as they are pursued by Charlie, and a series of stories of imagined psychopaths, whether they are from Billy’s insane brain, the script they are writing, or the relayed exploits of some of the seven psychopaths. Sometimes it is hard to tell them apart, as the realities bleed into each other.
In some ways, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is like ADAPTATION with a higher body count. It deconstructs and ridicules the tropes in the caper / mob double-cross genre while simultaneously using them. It may not be quite as highbrow as ADAPTATION, but it makes up for it in zany, and at times heartbreaking, bloodletting.
Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell steal the show, and are really the core of the film. Sam Rockwell’s character is a one-man plot engine. He’s sweetly well-meaning, but he tends to jump (or even shoot) first, and think about the consequences later. His restlessness and need for approval, combined with his staggering idiocy get the gang into all manner of compromised situations. Meanwhile, Christopher Walken is more or less the straight man. His summations of the lunacy of each predicament, in full-on Walken-speak, never fail to bring the house down. He’s a bit of a fuck-up too, but next to his partner he looks like a towering genius. If you’ve ever seen Walken on Saturday Night Live, you know that, next to Bill Murray, he may have the best deadpan in the business. And his comic timing is impeccable. This is one of his best roles yet -- one tailor written to make full use of both his comedic skills and gravitas.
Woody Harrelson pays a trigger-happy psychopath, happy to kill any person for almost any reason, but who loves his dog. His character is kind of a cross between the wisecracking, dog-loving Tallahassee in ZOMBIELAND and his deadly serious Carson Wells in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, if you can imagine that. Colin Farrell, on the other hand, is mostly wasted. His character just kind of drinks and whines the whole time, and he seems only there to give Sam Rockwell a counterpoint to play off of. The role would have been fine as a small one, but it is stretched out into being the main protagonist. He’s just kind of one-dimensional, and can’t compare to the fun of the flamboyant characters around him.
That’s actually the main problem with the movie. We need someone to root for, and it is clearly supposed to be Colin Farrell’s character, Marty. In a normal screenplay, the writer would make him good at something, or a dynamic character, or a lover of puppies, anything. But Martin McDonagh is going so far out of his way to be unconventional that he loses sight of the protagonist. Marty doesn’t really do anything -- he’s just kind of along for the ride. More than anything, he reminds me of Bella in the TWILIGHT movies -- whiny and superfluous.
The women of the film have almost literally nothing to do. Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, and Gabourey Sidibe have little more than cameos. Other characters do comment how poorly written roles for women are a mainstay of the genre, but that doesn’t excuse it -- it feels like a wasted opportunity.
SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is a hell of a lot of fun, but in some ways it is too clever by half. You know Martin McDonagh has no qualms about killing any character at any time, so when the body count starts to pile up, it doesn’t have quite the same impact as it would if he were a bit more selective about it. And the characters joke about how great it would be to end a movie with characters talking in the desert instead of having a shootout. Towards the middle-end of the film they do just this, with about 20 minutes of straight dialogue. Some of it is inspired, but it drags on too long.
SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is refreshing, unconventional, fun, and hilarious. Still, it drags in places, and has a few bits that never quite pay off the way you want them to. With a bit of editing, it could be exceptional. As it is though, it is plenty entertaining to see in the theater, and at the very least is guaranteed to become another cult hit on DVD.