With a whiz-bang name like Seven Psychopaths, and a cast consisting of Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Colin Farrell and (!?) Tom Waits you would think that everything about Martin McDonagh’s (Who made the darkly hilarious In Bruges) second directorial effort would be cut and dried. And you would be as dead wrong as the gangster whose head explodes after getting an arrow through the neck.
Cut to Marty (Colin Farrell), writer, alcoholic Irish genes lampshaded to hell and back, who says “I don’t want my script to be just another psychopath movie” While Marty isn’t aware that he’s tapping on the fourth wall, his thought process is a familiar one shared by many a creative soul who has tried their hand at breaking the mold of action movies. Seven Psychopaths speaks to this issue, a movie about the perils of script writing and how reality rarely resembles anything found in fiction.
Marty’s two best friends are Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell, and let that last name be a warning) and Hans, (Christopher Walken) two dognappers who probably don’t even qualify as petty crooks. Their usual scheme of abducting then returning rich people’s dogs for the grateful reward hits a snag when they snatch the wrong dog, belonging to a hair trigger gangster with soft spots for canines, Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson, large in his actions, but subtle in his words and demeanor)
The usual chase from Charlie’s psychotic rampage however doesn’t ensue, as the movie takes an unexpected detour into self-reflection that both celebrates and takes shots at the very notion that a script called Seven Psychopaths could be anything but a mindless action flick full of clichés and gunplay. Some of these take the form of over the top vignettes, including a sequence where Marty interviews Zacariah Rigsby (Tom Waits, chewing the scenery utilizing nothing but a white rabbit he carries) describing his life as a “Serial killer-killer,” and a nifty story about a Quaker’s revenge (Played by Harry Dean Stanton, looking ancient enough to play chess with Death himself) that turns out to have bigger significance to one of the group.
Seven Psychopaths would be hopelessly out of it’s depth if not for it’s stellar cast, who don’t so much play off each other as represent unique pieces of a puzzle that harmonize perfectly. Sam Rockwell is phenomenal as Marty’s seemingly laid-back muse who proceeds to go bonkers and is unflappable even in the face of Charlie’s rage. He’s so magnetic in his complete disregard for reality that you can’t help but be amazed that Rockwell is not yet an A-list actor.
Walken as Hans brings unexpected humanity and sweetness as a pacifist who suffers a spiritual crisis of sorts and doesn’t smoke weed, but will take Peyote while out in the desert. It’s Walken’s “been there, done that” attitude that makes Hans so watchable, and the film’s heart is at it’s most visible when he’s standing on the edge of the desert and pondering what color heaven is. Woody Harrelson meanwhile is solid gold as he showcases Charlie’s soft side for his dog but also keeping an aura of ruthlessness that makes him such a dangerous character to cross. Psychopath you might ask? well perhaps only in relation to Marty and Hans, but Billy has him beat by a mile in that category.
As Marty, Colin Farrell is stuck playing the “Seemingly normal one” who nonetheless achieves a kind of epiphany about fiction vs the real world that makes the performance quietly resonate. As the straight man to Billy’s nutso shenanigans, and Hans’ touching melancholy, he gets the best reactions as well as some of the films quieter moments that distinguish Seven Psychopaths from the films it references. He’s never been further from the dreck that was Total Recall, and Farrell reminds us once again that he’s far more interesting when he’s playing the normal guy, not the guy who thinks he’s the normal guy.
Behind the postmodern mood of the film however is a push towards genuine sentiment that is addressed whenever violence in the real world is contrasted with the trope-heavy shootouts in Marty’s screenplay. The film’s resolution then is not in a hail of gunfire, but through a story that attempts to show how the violence that we so fetishize in scripts like Seven Psychopaths is archaic and meaningless in real life, but by adding a little humanity in it, something transcendent may be found.