"Gandhi was wrong, and I'm the only one with the balls to say it."
Irish playwright Martin McDonagh started off as strongly as any writer in the late 1990s. His plays from Beauty Queen of Leenane to The Lieutenant of Innishmore racked up acclaim, Tony Award nominations, and respect from critics and fellow writers for his ability to capture the underbelly of everyday life mixed with scathing humor. His feature film debut was 2008's In Bruges, which earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and his follow-up, Seven Psychopaths, is an even better experiment, that is sure to be under-seen and under-appreciated.
A struggling writer by the name of Marty (Colin Farrell) is working on his latest screenplay for which he has a title, "Seven Psycopaths," and not much else. His best friend Billy Bickle (the brilliant Sam Rockwell) is desperately angling for a chance to help with the screenplay, but is also involved in some side work with his friend Hans (a never better Christopher Walken) as dog nappers. They're stealing dogs from a park near the LaBrea Tar Pits and returning them several days later for the reward money.
Things take a turn for the worse when one of the dogs they steal happens to belong to a mobster (Woody Harrelson). Marty's screenplay is also taking shape thanks to a tip from Billy about a serial killer by the name of The Jack of Diamonds killer, going around LA killing low-level mobsters. Before long though, the unlikely trio finds themselves on the run from the mob, and various other psychopaths they are encountering in greater numbers.
The film is a spiritual cousin to films like Adaptation and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in that it's almost more of a commentary on the very nature of writing than it is a film unto itself. The film is as layered and nuanced as anything Tarantino has churned out in his career, but can't help but being held up as an imitator, when it's far from it. It's sad to say that the film will likely end up being a victim of its own cleverness. Essentially, you're watching the film that Marty's writing, but the brilliance of it is that it's also shaped by the budding writing aspirations of both Billy and Hans, making it into a bit of a jumbled mess in the second act. But it all serves a higher purpose.
It's the kind of film that won't get the audience it deserves. The people who would truly enjoy it will likely stay away for fear that it's just another wannabe potboiler, and not the truly brilliant statement on action and crime films that it actually is. What sets it apart is that it's almost like watching a story being work shopped right before your eyes. Story lines come and go, but somehow manage to all tie together neatly at the end. As a matter of fact, the ending is brilliant beyond words, and worked for me in a way that I never thought it would. Conversely, I could easily see someone walking out of the theater detesting the direction they take at the very end of the film.
A huge part of what makes the film so successful is the performances. Rockwell is my favorite actor currently working, and he's in a full-on frenzy here. If you're not a fan of his from films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you likely won't be won over by his antics here, but for me they worked beautifully. Walken hasn't been this good in a long time, either. He goes for broke and it pays off huge dividends. He's fully given in to self-parody and it plays so brilliantly, I think he's going to be sadly devoid of awards recognition at the end of the year.
While I've never been a particularly big fan of his, Farrell makes a great leading man here. He underplays everything so well, and knows how to sit back and volley to his co-stars, giving them the payoffs, it's a great showcase for his unique abilities. Harrelson also makes the best of his slightly underwritten role, infusing his character with an unpredictability that pays off wonderfully. There's also some great small roles from Tom Waits, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kevin Corrigan, Harry Dean Stanton, and Michael Pitt. It's an amazing cast, top to bottom.
I hate that I always have to qualify films that I love by saying that this is not a film for everyone, but it truly isn't. While I found the film to be brilliantly self-aware and endlessly quotable, I could see it coming off as jarring or annoying to the average movie goer. If you love films like Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, and the other films I've already mentioned, I would have a hard time believing that you wouldn't love this film as well. When I saw Argo last week, I remember thinking that it was one of the better movies that I've seen this year, but that I likely won't go back it watch it again. On the other hand, Seven Psychopaths is a movie that I cannot wait to see again. And again. And again.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]