'Seven Psychopaths' Insanely Fun
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
You may think you've seen this movie already. You may think you've seen this movie already a bunch of times. You may think you've seen this movie already a bunch of times and not liked it: Let's face it, as great an actor as Christopher Walken is, he has acted in a bunch of genre films about nasty criminals, and some of them have been real stinkers. But you haven't seen a movie like "Seven Psychopaths" before, not precisely like "Seven Psychopaths" anyway, but part of the reason why has to do with relying on the idea that you think you might have seen it before.
That sounds confusing. It is not. The movie, written and directed by the esteemed and extreme Irish playwright Martin McDonagh (whose debut feature, "In Bruges," was an ambitious and relentlessly hilarious genre phantasmagoria), delights in pulling the rug out from under the audience every seven minutes or so, but it does this pulling in such cerebrally and cinematically exciting ways that once you shake it off, you're ready for the next tumble.
The movie opens with a couple of wiseguys, played by Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg, having a discussion in something like hyper-literary Tarantino mode, while waiting to perform a hit, only they are soon hit themselves, relatively gruesomely, by a masked assassin who leaves a couple of playing cards at the scene. All overlooking the Hollywood sign. Cut to the home of Irish screenwriter Martin (hmm), who drinks too much and has made zero progress on his latest screenplay, which he has titled, provocatively, "Seven Psychopaths." Martin, played with exceptional furrow-browed frustration by Colin Farrell, has a weird loser best friend, non-thriving actor Billy (Sam Rockwell, who nearly walks away with the picture), who has a sideline in dog abduction overseen by quasi-pacifist small-time crook Hans (Walken, brilliant as he approaches a wizened state). Things heat up, as they say, when Billy kidnaps the wrong crazy mobster's dog (the crazy mobster is played by Woody Harrelson, and the dog has a pretty funny crazy message on its ID tag about its if-lost status), but again, they don't go in quite the direction you might expect.
The body count, however, does keep going up (this is one of the most blood-soaked movies to unspool on screen in a while), and new, ever-more insane tales are interpolated into the "main" story line. There's a sense in which one intuits that McDonagh is trying to rhyme his escalating, deliberately complex structure to a kind of ethical statement concerning the sort of violent entertainment that has been this industry's, and filmmaker's, bread and butter. Suffice it to say that at the film's halfway mark, when Marty, Billy and Hans are in a car driving out into the desert and Marty muses that he would really like his movie to make a statement about peace by having its main characters drive out into the desert and do nothing but talk it out for the second half of the film, it's the funniest threat that a movie has made at its halfway point in recent memory.
"Seven Psychopaths" will not, of course, carry through on that threat, but it does a pretty nifty job of being the bad thing while making raucous fun of the bad thing at the same time. To say that the movie is kind of like "Pulp Fiction" meets "Adaptation." is not entirely inaccurate, but it does ignore the intricacies and rhythms that McDonagh's particular ... brogue brings to bear on the material. "The Spanish have got bullfighting, the French have got cheese and the Irish have got alcoholism," Billy laughs at Marty at some point, and Irish Marty's also got a healthy dose of Catholic guilt, too. The intimations of mortality and morality that hang over this, and over much of McDonagh's other work, give it a different finish, if you will, than American-grown genre variations do. And McDonagh's rhetoric tricks with the dialogue are expertly his own. There are few linguistic jugglers who get as much mileage out of repetition as McDonagh does. Such profane pleasures are not to be deplored in a contemporary cinema whose idea of edginess grows more muddy-headed and reliant on projectile-vomiting jokes by the month.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.