Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, and Sam Rockwell, as three of the at least seven psychopaths in Martin McDonagh’s absurdist thriller Seven Psychopaths, take time out from running from the bad guys out to kill them for dognapping the boss’ Shih Tzu to discuss the finer points of moviemaking.
The answer is one.
I'm just not sure which one.
Actually, I'm not even sure which characters in Seven Pychopaths to count as psychopaths. The trailer and the ads count two characters who barely register as characters in the movie. Meanwhile, as I sat in the theater thinking maybe I'll start to like this, maybe it'll grow on me, maybe if I sit here long enough I'll figure out what's going on and what the director is trying to do, and then I'll like it, I counted enough other characters I'm pretty sure psychiatrists would diagnose as psychopathic to bring the count of the dangerously insane up to at least nine, and there were enough signs that the count might be much higher and include every character with at least one line of dialog.
Of course, there's one obvious candidate for the psychopath responsible for this screwiness is writer and director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), who maybe wouldn't object to being lumped in with the psychopaths who populate his movie since, based on there being no sane people in his characters' universe, a theme of Seven Psychopaths is that we're all psychopaths.
That is to say, the world, according to McDonagh, is a mad, violent, and bloody place, full of people pursuing their mad ends with no regard for the feelings, concerns, needs, or existence of the other mad men and mad women they share the planet with.
The lesson here isn't that the way to survive in a world gone mad is to go mad yourself and create your own mad reality, although that's what people tend to do, in life and in the movie. The proper response is to go sane and create your own little bubble of sanity around you and yours, which, by the way, is the lesson of all Dickens' novels, and I don't doubt McDonagh has read his Dickens. The best way to build this bubble, though, is through art, particularly the art of storytelling, on paper, sure, but also, emphatically, on film.
McDonagh's main character, played by Colin Farrell, is an Irish screenwriter adrift in Hollywood named, not self-referentially, I'm sure, Martin, who is working---trying to work---on a screenplay for which he has a title but no plot and no characters.
Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh's film not Martin's barely started screenplay, is a movie about what movies are good for that uses itself as its own prime example. Characters comment on the art of moviemaking in self-referential ways that bring them very close to breaking the fourth wall. They don't know they're in a movie. They just can imagine their lives as a movie, which is to say they can imagine themselves as characters in a movie, and at the moment the movie they're imagining themselves in seems very much like this one.
At any rate, Martin is in no condition to create any bubbles of sanity, on paper, on film, in life. He has a drinking problem. A blackout drunk with a habit of self-destructive meanness when deeply under the influence, rather then building bubbles, he pops them. Slowly, though, as the movie unfolds, it begins to dawn on him, that somebody is trying to help him out by building a bubble of sanity around him in which he'll be able to settle down and write. The trouble is that that somebody has a very different conception of sanity than Martin.
Fortunately for him, although Martin himself doesn't see much fortunate in it, he has a friend looking out for him, a usually unemployed because he's unemployable actor named Billy Bickle. Yes, the allusion's deliberate. There’s no doubt Billy’s one of McDonagh’s seven psychopaths. Billy (played by Sam Rockwell) has no trouble getting parts, he just can't keep them. Creative differences are always arising between him and his directors, which Billy tries to resolve by beating up the directors. But he's determined to help Martin complete his screenplay. All he asks from Martin is a little help escaping from the gangster whose beloved Shih Tzu Bonny he's dognapped.
Billy has a side business snatching doted-upon dogs and then collecting the rewards offered by the distressed and desperate owners. His partner in this enterprise is Hans (Christopher Walken), an elegant and gentle man who is using his share of the take to pay for his wife's cancer treatments. That's not why he's in the dognapping business. Hans hasn't done an honest day's work in twenty years. For much of that time, he was involved in a long-term project that required the flexible schedule a life of crime provided. Crook that he is, Hans and his wife are deeply religious, good Catholics whose faith, already being tested by her illness, is about to undergo a severe trial when the gangster comes looking for his dog and revenge.
Martin McDonagh is the brother of James Michael McDonagh who wrote and directed The Guard, one of my favorite movies from last year, and it’s clear that the brothers are on the same wave length. Seven Psychopaths shares themes, elements, and sensibilities with The Guard, including the Pulp Fiction trope of criminals holding pseudo-intellectual arguments about life and culture while out on the job. Both movies accept the world is a mad place peopled by madmen and madwomen who don’t seem to notice or care that they and the world and everybody else in it are mad, and both movies feature main characters who have built little bubbles of sanity around themselves. The difference is that in The Guard it all matters. And it matters because The Guard treats itself as a realistic portrayal of how the world is, at least as taking a realistic look at how the world can sometimes seem because it in fact often is that way. In Seven Psychopaths, this is more of a conceit, an idea McDonagh is playing with that he hopes we’ll enjoy playing with along with him. Which is fine. It is enjoyable. Sometimes. But it happens too often that the characters are puppets to the conceit and that makes it hard to care what happens to them. If it’s all just an idea to play around with, what does it matter if a character dies simply to support the idea?
Bodies pile up in Seven Psychopaths, most of them as the result of extremely violent and gruesome deaths. I couldn’t decide if McDonagh was using the gore to distract us from the deaths themselves---using violence to insulate us from the violence---or to distract us from the comedy that surrounds the violence or to make sure we don’t make the mistake of thinking he means the violence to be funny. Probably a bit of all three, with an emphasis on the last one. But I couldn’t help and still can’t help suspecting that he was also using it to make us pay attention, to make us care about what was happening to his characters or what might happen because he sensed that without the shock we otherwise wouldn’t.
It’s not that McDonagh treats his characters only as puppets. But he could have done a better job of hiding that they are puppets. There are several ways he could have gone about this. The one I thought of off hand, though, was that he could have had something important at stake at the center of his plot. Frankly, who cares if Martin or any screenwriter finishes a screenplay? (This was Nicolas Cage’s character’s---or one of his characters’---problem in Adaptation, which might have been an influence on McDonagh, and if it was, good on him. But it was not why we were concerned for that character…or characters. For one thing, we were concerned that they might not be two characters.) It’s funny that Billy and Hans are so worried about Martin’s being unable to finish his screenplay that they do their best to help him write it while they are running for their lives from the gangster. But one joke, even if it’s a good one, isn’t enough to build a plot around.
What probably would have done the trick is if McDonagh had made the gangster chasing them less of a psychopath instead of the most psychopathic of all the psychopaths. If he had a reason to want to kill them besides his insane love for his dognapped Shih Tzu. If snatching Bonny had been Billy’s first mistake. If, that is, there’d been a real crime Billy and Hans and Martin, once he’d been dragged into it, were thwarting by having dognapped Bonny.
As it is, Charlie Costello makes Al Pacino’s Tony Montana look like a model of self-control. The only reason Charlie doesn’t kill everybody who makes him angry---and just about everybody does---is that along with his unnatural affection for his dog, he’s made a fetish of his silver-plated .45 automatic which has a tendency to misfire two out of three times he pulls the trigger. Charlie is not dangerous in the way of gangster movie gangsters. He’s dangerous in the way of horror movie monsters. He’s entirely without reason or motive, implacable in his hatreds, and relentlessly violent. And on top of all this, he’s meant to be funny.
Woody Harrelson does his best to make him funny, and because he’s Woody Harrelson he often does. Also, because he’s Woody Harrelson, he does a good job of making Charlie creepy. But the only thing truly scary about Charlie as a character is our fear that if his gun does go off we’re going to see somebody’s head explode at close range. As a villain in his own right, Charlie doesn’t matter.
He does matter, though, when he’s in the company of his chief lieutenant and enforcer Paulo, who, as played by Zeljko Ivanek, may be the only character in the movie who is not a psychopath. No small feat, considering Paulo is a professional killer. But he has reasons and motives for killing that are, well, reasonable. For one thing, he understands that a good criminal organization needs a boss who is organized, and he’s figured out that the best way to keep Charlie focused is to let him go nuts now and then, as long as he gets done whatever nutty thing he’s decided to do quickly and relatively neatly. I got a kick out of seeing Ivanek, a longtime favorite character actor who usually plays more intellectual, softer-edged, and elegant types (like the ADA in Homicide), playing a truly tough movie tough guy. He has Paulo treating Charlie like an exasperating little brother who persists in doing the kind of stupid things they learned as kids not to do, and through Ivanek’s performance Charlie gains humanity and therefore some measure of seriousness as a villain. Charlie starts to matter to us because he matters to Paulo and he starts to become funnier because Charlie is not funny to Paulo. And he starts to feel truly dangerous because Paulo is truly dangerous.
But that’s what good actors do for each other. They make each other’s performance better. And this is true for the all the main players. The main male players, although that amounts to saying the same thing, and I’ll get to that, shortly. I was particularly taken with Walken here. I can’t think of very many other performances of his I would describe as a good example of how to underplay a part. What’s more, I can’t think of any other role he’s played I’d describe as a truly good person. Hans is by no means a saint. But he is what a man who knows himself to be deeply flawed trying to follow the example of the saints would look and sound like. It’s a quiet, gentle, sane performance, and not just for Walken. Hans may or may not be one of the movie’s psychopaths, but if he is, he’s a recovering one. I can’t say, and in order to say I’d have to undertake a Christopher Walken retrospective, not something that has all that much of an attraction for me, but I think his performance here and, from what I’ve seen, in the upcoming Stand Up Guys, will give future critics and fans a sense that there’s been some shape to his eccentric and unruly career.
Sam Rockwell’s career already has a discernable shape. In one role after another, he’s been able to find and make clear what’s appealing in annoying characters without losing track of what’s annoying about them. That’s what he does here with Billy. Not only does he make us see what’s appealing in Billy, he makes us see that what’s appealing is also admirable.
Colin Farrell’s main job is to make it halfway plausible that an intelligent and competent grownup could get himself into the mess he finds himself in. He makes Martin just sane enough to understand he’s in trouble, but just unhinged enough that he not only can’t he think his way out of it, he might actually have thought his way into it and it’s not all Billy’s fault, as he’d like to believe.
Tom Waits shows up holding a rabbit and makes us forget the rabbit the same way we forget he’s wearing a jacket. Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg have fun together in their one scene paying homage to Reservoir Dogs. Harry Dean Stanton doesn’t have a single line but who cares. He doesn’t need lines. He’s Harry Dean Stanton.
At one point in the movie, Billy and Hans have an argument over the direction Billy thinks Martin’s screenplay should take and the role women play in Billy’s conception of things. Hans objects that in Billy’s version of the story the women characters are passive and inarticulate. They not only need the male characters to come to their rescue, they need them to speak for them. Billy defends himself on the grounds that he’s being realistic. It’s a hard world for women, he says. Hans agrees, to a point. Yes, he says, “It is a hard world for women, but most of them I know can string a sentence together.” This is one of the points where Seven Psychopaths seems to be commenting on himself, because the women in this movie, although they can string a sentence together, aren’t given that many sentences to string. As Hans’ wife Myra, Linda Bright Clay is given the most and she makes the most of what she’s given. But Abie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko are practically ignored, and Gabourey Sidibe is worse than wasted. She’s made a fool out of.
McDonagh’s treatment of his female characters is something I definitely did not like about Seven Psychopaths and using Hans to apologize for it on his behalf doesn’t get him off the hook. But this gets me back to the question, did I like the movie?
As I said, I didn’t. At first. I sat there thinking I would. But whenever I came close, something happened that convinced me I didn’t like it. Then something else happened that made me think I did. Then I didn’t again. Then I did, and then…I still did.
At about two-thirds of the way through I realized that I’d been enjoying the movie for a while now and from there onto the end I kept liking it.
I think I still like it.
I’m not exactly sure why.
And I’m not prepared to bet you will.
Because even if their mom always loved him best I don’t play favorites: My review of Martin McDonagh’s brother John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, Did your mother come from Ireland and did she deal cocaine?
Seven Psychopaths, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Zeljko Ivanek, Tom Waits, Henry Dean Stanton, Linda Bright Clay, Gabourey Sidibe, Abie Cornish, and Olga Kurylenko. Rated R. Now in theaters.