Seven Psychopaths (2012, Martin McDonagh)

Courtesy of CBS films

“Bet you wish you had your gun now.”

On the surface Seven Psychopaths appears to be a knockabout comedy featuring a bunch of guys pointing guns at each other and talking bollocks. McDonagh’s screenplay is essentially an exercise in navel-gazing and overall the film is a mess. Yet Seven Psychopaths works because Martin McDonagh has something to say about loss. Any comparisons to Quentin Tarantino are dismissed in an opening sequence showing two overly talkative hitmen (Boardwalk Empire stars Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) too busy conversing to notice one of McDonagh’s anarchic psychos casually walking up behind them with a gun in each hand.
Marty (Colin Farrell) is a blocked screenwriter whose technique of using alcohol for inspiration isn’t working. He has a title – Seven Psychopaths and a vague idea about a Vietnamese man taking vengeance on Americans for the My Lai massacre in 1968. Best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) wants to help and puts an ad in the trades looking for killers to share their stories with Marty leading them to an unusual encounter with Zachariah (Tom Waits), an eccentric who carries around a white rabbit and claims to have been part of a couple who hunted down and killed other serial killers. Billy also has a sideline in dog-napping with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) but when they kidnap the beloved pet of gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson) all hell breaks loose.
The characters are as self-aware as those in Wes Scream (1996) with an abundance of knowledge about how movies work, but the narrative also deals with the art of storytelling, not just in screenplays but in urban legends, or fairy tales. The film has plenty of depth but its much vaunted humour is only intermittently funny with most of the laughs coming from Waits who longs for a reunion with his former lover and partner in crime.  The white rabbit renders him with a touch of the Mad Hatter. Zachariah may well be a harmless lunatic telling tall tales or a lunatic who really does kill people. Walken is great too delivering the kind of graceful, haunted menace we haven’t seen from him since Abel Ferrara’s masterpiece The Funeral (1996).
The movie is driven by two opposing viewpoints – Marty’s pacifism and Billy’s insistence that genre rules must be obeyed. So while Marty wants to chill out in the desert and talk about things Billy wants the showdown you would expect an action film to deliver. Ideally Marty would prefer to not write about violence at all and his developing interest in Buddhist philosophy undercuts the action, particularly in relation to the acceptance of death. Recurrent throughout the film is the theme of passive resistance, of refusing to accept threats often to the bewilderment of the aggressor. “But I have a gun…!” responds Zeljko Ivanek’s mobster when Hans refuses to surrender.
Though it shares with Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) a self-reflexive approach to narrative the film it recalls most is Mike Hodges underrated Pulp (1972), a thriller also about a writer which deconstructs male machismo and leaves its faux hard-boiled protagonist wiser and sadder at its end. McDonagh has been playing about with genre tropes since his early days in the theatre and in his short film Six Shooter (2005) and feature debut In Bruges (2008) but maybe it’s time he embraced the message of his latest movie and put those guns away.

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