Film Review: Seven Psychopaths

In a year which has seen the big screen graced with the likes of Holy Motors and The Cabin In The Woods, Seven Psychopaths makes a strong case to be the craziest of the bunch.  Not only is the topic of insanity inherent in its title, it’s a jumbled mixture of strange scenarios and larger-than-life characters, which revolves around the thinnest of plots.  But at the same time, it’s very entertaining.

There seems to be a pattern developing regarding how writer-director Martin McDonagh’s films are publicised, especially in their trailers.  If you walk into Seven Psychopaths merely on the basis of the cutesy teasers, you’ll likely be completely unprepared for the experience which is to follow.  Just as In Bruges’ adverts portrayed it as a hitman comedy-cum-buddy movie, McDonagh’s second film has been dressed as a simple hoot about two dognappers in way over their heads.  Half-right, but what actually transpires is much more bizarre.

The set-up takes many disparate elements and weaves them together to form a strange beast indeed.  Martin Freeman (Colin Farrell) is an Irish screenwriter, bumming around Los Angeles as he struggles to find inspiration for his latest project, entitled “Seven Psychopaths”.  His friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) runs a dognapping scam with the older Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken).  When the pair make off with a shih tzu belonging to ruthless gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), proceedings turn bloody, not to mention convoluted.

But to be honest, that’s not even scratching the surface of what this film covers.  Closer in nature to the kinetic eccentricities of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang than McDonagh’s original feature-length, the jittery Seven Psychopaths makes In Bruges look elegiac by comparison.  After a Tarantino-esque opening which focuses on a dialogue between two eyeball-fixated mobsters, for a few moments it almost seems as if this is McDonagh’s take on the straightforward crime caper.  But what follows is so twisty and casually self-reflexive that – even disregarding the autobiographical narrative – it is all too easy to view the film as simply a form of therapy for McDonagh’s own writer’s block.

Indeed, Seven Psychopaths unspools like a vast melting pot of ideas.  Harry Dean Stanton as a ghoulish Quaker, a vengeful Vietnamese priest, a rabbit-cuddling Tom Waits…  The ideas come so thick and fast that when they are pulled together, not everything sticks.  In the script itself, even McDonagh nods to the fact that his female characters are underwritten, and peppers the dialogue with cheeky clues concerning impending events.  Some of these moments of metatextual bravado are carried off nicely, but they eventually become so overwhelming that at times it feels as if McDonagh is attempting to paper over the cracks in what is essentially a very muddled film.

The cast is spectacular on all fronts, with each member completely game to embrace this multi-layered (“like a pie”) headscratcher.  Colin Farrell plays things relatively straight, his bafflement reassuring and endearing in the face of such a maniacal universe.  Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson and Tom Waits all deliver as impressively as expected, but Sam Rockwell’s performance is the one which really leaves a mark.  He doesn’t so much steal the show as kidnap it, drive it into the middle of nowhere, and proceed to hold it hostage.  His Billy Bickle is a hoot: sloppy but wired, unhinged yet sharp, and his exuberance carries the film through even its scrappiest passages.  The peak comes some way into the second half of the film, when Billy explains – in vivid, brilliantly-accented detail – how his own final shootout would be staged.  It’s a gut-busting five minutes, which possibly even rivals Ted’s Flash Gordon sequence as one of the comedy highlights of the year.

Boasting such a great ensemble cast, some striking visuals courtesy of cinematographer Ben Davis, and a very knotty structure, Seven Psychopaths will leave you turning a lot of events over in your mind long after the credits have rolled.  A couple of classic twists are even pulled off alongside all the introspection, marking this as a film ripe for repeat viewings.  But it does take a huge gamble with its self-reflexive premise, and its satirical approach comes dangerously close to smacking of sheer laziness.  Thankfully, it just about manages to stay on the right side of playful for the most part, and the end result is memorable, quotable and funny enough to make it vibrant viewing.

Movie Marmite.  As with In Bruges, it’ll be intriguing to see how McDonagh’s second full-length release stands the test of time.  It’s often difficult to pull apart what is clever metatextual riffing from what is just compensating for messiness, but in a way, therein lies the fun.

7/10

17/12/2012

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Posted on December 18, 2012, in The Film World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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