Marty is a struggling writer intent on finishing his screenplay, Seven Psychopaths. He just needs a little inspiration which he soon finds in his unscrupulous best friend Billy, an unemployed actor who steals dogs for the reward money. But when Billy kidnaps the beloved Shih Tzu of a maniacal crime boss, Marty finds himself thrust into a twisted criminal underworld filled with more madness and violence than he ever could have imagined.
As a follow up to his 2008 film In Bruges - a dark comedy about two hit men struggling to cope after a job gone wrong - Martin McDonagh's second feature, Seven Psychopaths, ups the ante in nearly every way. The film does share many similarities with In Bruges, namely a sadistic sense of humor and the presence of Colin Farrell as its lead, but is also a more complex and ambitious film, one that seeks to make the audience laugh while gore and epithets are being tossed left and right.
The film stars Colin Farrell as the appropriately named Marty, an alcoholic, Hollywood-based screenwriter (is there any other kind?) who is struggling with his latest script, titled Seven Psychopaths. Marty, like any good writer, wants to take a familiar genre and evolve it beyond its core concepts. In his case he wants to take a film called Seven Psychopaths and make it about love and connection, not mindless violence. As Marty's script begins to take shape, and he discovers whom these psychopaths are, the audience is treated to short vignettes (films within the film) that introduce these new characters and establish their story. At first the vignettes appear to be stylized representations of Marty's thought process, but by about the middle of the film it becomes clear that Marty's script, and the film the audience is seeing are one in the same. It's a little complicated, and doesn't quite come together as envisioned, but it makes sense on screen.
Seven Psychopaths' immediate story focuses on Marty's relationship with his close friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who also happens to run a dognapping racket with Hans (Christopher Walken). Unfortunately, as these types of things are wont to do, Hans and Billy end up with the beloved Shih Tzu of a mob boss, played by Woody Harrelson, and Marty unwillingly gets tossed into the mix. It's a simple set-up that evolves way beyond any average moviegoer could have expected, and turns the film into equal parts buddy comedy (centered on a strengthened relationship between Marty, Hans, and Billy), revenge flick (Woody Harrelson's character's quest to find and kill those responsible for kidnapping his dog), and meta film about the screenwriting process. Some of the movie's eponymous seven psychopaths are established as part of the core story, while others are featured in segways (the aforementioned vignettes), and to complicate matters further some jump between narrative spaces. How exactly McDonagh juggles the seven psychopaths isn't easy to explain, but in the film it works quite well, and the boundaries between each story (be it a vignette, Marty's script, or a combination of both) are well defined.
McDonagh's interweaving narratives can best be articulated by a particularly lengthy sequence in the second act that incorporates humor, violence, and the screenwriting process (surprisingly) so brilliantly that it is entertaining, hilarious, absurd, and expository all at the same time. As well, the scene (and much of the film's humor for that matter) works because of the tremendous comedic performances McDonagh renders from all the actors involved. Farrell and Rockwell, as Marty and Billy, have an awkward chemistry on screen, but that feels perfect in the context of the film. Alone the two are given moments to shine, but it's Rockwell who gets the biggest laughs out of all involved. Walken and Harrelson as two equally quirky characters don't venture too far outside their wheelhouses, but they deliver entertaining performances nonetheless. Dark comedy is hard to get right, but all parties involve pull their weight, and ensure the film doesn't go too far off the deep end, even if going off the deep end is required of their characters.
While rich in interesting characters and dynamic story beats, though, McDonagh's script isn't as tight as it could be, and lacks focus particularly in its third act. As the dozen or so moving pieces come together, the film attempts to comment on so many topics that a few get lost in the last minute shuffle. Seven Psychopath's story does buck the trends and continues to evolve till the very end, but ultimately it lacks cohesion in a few important places. Whether that is by design is hard to say, but as a compelling dark comedy it falls a little short of perfection.
As the film's title and 'R' rating suggest, Seven Psychopaths is very violent and is not for the squeamish. It doesn't mindlessly revel in carnage like a typical mafia film would, but rather tries to convey humor amidst the blood and violence. Like In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths finds humor in some pretty morbid places, but is nonetheless one of the funniest movies (mature) audiences will see all year.
It's worth reiterating that Seven Psychopaths is genuinely funny in a way that few films are these days. Dark Comedy is not an easy genre to pull off, and when there are moments of hardcore violence it makes it even harder for the audience to stay invested and still laughing. Thankfully, Seven Psychopaths strikes a solid balance between humor and action, and uses its well-defined characters to keep the story from resting on one story beat or joke for too long. McDonagh's script knows where the jokes are, and when it's time for each character to shine; and most importantly the story finds convenient detours that lead to new and exciting territory.
Seven Psychopaths is not a laugh riot, and like I mentioned earlier its humor comes from a very morbid, and potentially disturbing place, but fans of the genre or who have seen In Bruges will find a lot to like about this film. Labeling an absurdly dark comedy as smart feels like an oxymoron, but in this case it fits.
October 12, 2012