If you listen to the marketing pitch about Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, you get the idea that it’s a violent action-comedy in the vein of Smoking Aces or Lucky Number Slevin. And this is not wrong; like those movies it’s a smart, stylish caper with an ensemble cast of amoral, ultraviolent characters. But psychopaths — to what little extent any of these characters actually exhibit any true psychopathic tendencies — get very tiring, very quickly. Luckily, McDonagh knows this, and knows we know it, and while he doesn’t turn this movie into something else entirely, he does make something entirely unexpected and riotously entertaining to watch.
Marty (Colin Farrell) is a screenwriter, which is the first tip-off that something funny is going on. His best friend is Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), which is the second. Billy is sort of a loser, but he means well, and he worries about Marty’s drinking and his ability to finish the screenplay he’s working on. On the other hand, he’s sort of a jerk to Marty’s girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), and to his own paramour (Olga Kurylenko) for that matter.
Marty’s movie is about psychopaths, naturally. But he also wants it to be peaceful and uplifting. He’s got the idea for a Buddhist Psychopath (Long Nguyen), but that doesn’t seem to go where he wants it. Billy presents him with the “Jack O’Diamonds”, who kills mid-to-high level organized crime figures, and with the Quaker Psychopath (Harry Dean Stanton), who stalks a man to death. He even puts out a newspaper ad, turning up Zachariah (Tom Waits) who claims that he and his wife Maggie (Amanda Warren) used to act as serial killers who killed other serial killers.
Billy works — if you can call it that — for Hans (Christopher Walken). They kidnap dogs, hold them until a reward poster goes up, and then collect. Somehow, this manages to make enough for Hans to cover cancer treatments for his wife (Linda Bright Clay). But it turns out badly when they steal a shih-tzu belonging to Charlie (Woody Harrelson), the crime boss who sets out to chase them down with the help of his lieutenant (Željko Ivanek).
And then it goes weird, about the precise details of which the less said the better. Suffice to say McDonagh is very smart and very funny, in case that hasn’t been made perfectly clear by now from Six Shooter and In Bruges. Rian Johnson may be a master of recombining formalisms, but McDonagh brings a smirking, poststructuralist impishness that I, for one, eat up and ask for more.
We know he can work well with Farrell, but the rest of the core cast are at the tops of their games. Harrelson is perfectly cast, as is Waits. Rockwell and Walken deliver exactly the two complementary performances the script needs to work. And not to mention all the minor appearances from Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kevin Corrigan, Gabourey Sidibe, and more.
Best of all, Seven Psychopaths shows that a film can be truly smart and insightful, and yet still be a winner with a wide audience. Even if all the commentary and theory flies over your head, it’s still a hilariously fun ride.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail, and pointedly so.