Confoundingly Wonderful: Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths”

Reviewed in this essay: Seven Psychopaths, written and directed by Martin McDonagh. Starring Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson. Running time: 110 minutes.

Lyrical Violence, Postmodern Play, and Dogs

The trailers for Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s third film, Seven Psychopaths, are wonderfully misleading: they present the film as a quirky gangster comedy about a dog kidnapping gone wrong. They are so upbeat that one can just see an unsuspecting couple on their date night stumbling into this black little pill of a film. No lighthearted escapism awaits them, however, for McDonagh’s film is far more brilliantly confounding than most of the sanitized, commercial fare Hollywood routinely offers us.

Ostensibly, the film tells the story of a struggling screenwriter (Colin Farrell) as he attempts to tackle his writer’s block. Writing a screenplay about seven psychopathic killers, he can’t even come up with the character types or a story to put them in. He is helped by his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who inadvertently gets both of them mixed up in the criminal underworld when a dog kidnapping scheme of his goes wrong. Billy and his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) have kidnapped the dog of a mob heavy (Woody Harrelson), and all kinds of hell ensues over the precious mutt.

And yet, that summary barely scratches the surface of this haunting, morbid comedy. There are scenes of overwhelmingly graphic violence; smaller scenes of surprising emotional intimacy between a host of bit characters; and flashbacks to moments of carnage long past, which are shot with slow-motioned lyrical intensity. Somewhere in there you will find a throat-slitting Amish farmer, a revenge-obsessed Vietcong priest, and a former serial killer (played by a commanding Tom Waits) who now tends lovingly to his pet rabbit. And throughout it all, each main character possesses tongue-in-cheek glibness about the proceedings: discussions of Ferrel’s screenplay take on meta film-within-a-film dimensions, as self-referential nods to the various plot strands expand.

The film’s shifts in tone can be jarring to say the least, from the upbeat buzz of buddy comedy, to self-immolating tableaus of romanticized violence, to the nudge-wink of postmodern narrative recalls. McDonagh seems unsure if he wants his film to be a brooding inquiry into the nature of mortality or a tongue in cheek gas about the joys of narrative play. At times, it feels stranded between both. And although the film is set in a sun-soaked LA, it fails to capture any sense of real, lived-in place. The mise-en-scene feels oddly perfunctory, presenting an LA of blank hospital interiors and empty streetscapes. It’s only in the film’s last act, when the characters make hay out in the teeming desert of Eastern California, that McDonagh’s camera feels confidently unrestrained.

Empathetic Humanism: Walken stares down Harrelson in Seven Psychopaths

McDonagh’s much heralded previous film, In Bruges, succeeded largely because of the tortured humanity exhibited by its two on-the-run hitmen. Brendon Gleeson, in particular, held us riveted with a stunningly empathetic performance. Psychopaths‘s narrative inconsistencies are likewise saved by the performance of an aging gangster at its center. While Farrell plays what has become for him his signature character – the eye-darting, insecure Irishman – it is Christopher Walken who lifts the film up from its gory excesses into something resembling pathos. Playing an aging pacifist secure in the knowledge of life after death, Walken possesses a matter-of-fact calm that is deeply affecting. There is a scene between him and Woody Harrelson involving a cravat that, standing alone, makes McDonagh’s film worth watching. Witness as Walken, in the space of a few bats of an eye and a couple of softly spoken words, invokes a lifetime of pain as he forgives the man who has taken everything from him.

Amidst the blood and meta-referential sarcasm, it this abiding sense of humanism that makes McDonagh’s third film hauntingly effective.