Mark Reviews Movies

Seven Psychopaths

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Martin McDonagh

Cast: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Long Nguyen, Olda Kurylenko

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 10/12/12


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 11, 2012

It's easy enough to call a person a psychopath, despite the endless debate about what exactly the word means. Surely, though, we can all agree that one who possesses enough of a disregard for human life to kill others without remorse would fit the bill. This is especially true of a man who decides a bloodbath is the only answer to rectify the abduction of his dog. In that context, though, what can be said of the man who recognizes the willingness of the first man to murder without mercy and decides that he would like to meet the other guy?

As its title suggests, Seven Psychopaths is a wellspring of blood and gore. It's also a source of almost immeasurable sadness. That might seem an odd description at first, but shouldn't a film about a group of people whose very humanity is in question be at least a little depressing?

Seven Psychopaths is a film that is nearly impossible to categorize, and the level of difficulty in characterizing it is just as difficult. In form, writer/director Martin McDonagh's screenplay is essentially stream of consciousness; it starts from perhaps the only idea the film could start: A screenwriter named Marty (Colin Farrell) is trying to write his newest screenplay with only a title and the concept said title provides to guide him, and yes, the title of Marty's movie is the same as McDonagh's.

The film's self-reflexive nature really begins before we even meet Marty. It opens with two men (Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) readying their guns and talking about nothing in particular until the subject of their target arises. Then it's a question of morality. Does the one guy feel guilty about having to kill a woman, the other asks. Of course not, the first guy answers. They don't talk like normal people; they talk like two toughs in a movie trying to talk like normal people. That's when the McDonagh offers the first of a multitude of surprises; let's just say the first appearance of these two is their last.

Their dialogue feels artificial, but so too does the scene in which they exist. By its very nature—the relaxed tone, the hastened introductions, the punctuation at the end—this is the opening scene of a movie, both literally and in a more conceptual way. In other words, while it's the prologue to McDonagh's story, it might as well be one of Marty's general ideas of how to start his own script, too.

Marty has a little case of writer's block. He has saddled himself with a title and a premise that appears simple enough, yet he can barely settle on one psychopath for his story, let alone seven. He's also convinced that he will be able to mold his tale of murderers and bloody, bloody murder into one that is ultimately about peace and love. McDonagh himself is making a promise to us here regarding his own film, and it's not the last one he makes through Marty in this heavily layered narrative.

Attempting to aid Marty in his writing is his old friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), whose "career" involves stealing dogs from their owners, holding the canines until the owner posts a reward, and passing them on to Hans (Christopher Walken), who shows up at the owner's doorstep and collects the money. Billy steals the dog of Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who is one of the titular psychopaths (The film lets us know through helpful titles whenever one shows up). Charlie loves the dog enough to torture the woman (Gabourey Sidibe) who was walking it with the threat of death.

Charlie's hunt for his little dog provides the throughline for the film, as Marty becomes caught up in Billy and Hans' scheme (His girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) kicks him out of her house after he gets black-out drunk at a party and calls her a nasty name; Marty is quite the heavy drinker). The plot, though, is secondary; this is a film that revels in the act and art of storytelling.

Our first impression of McDonagh's broader goal comes when Billy offers a suggestion for Marty's cast of characters. He tells the story of a devoutly religious man (Harry Dean Stanton) whose daughter is viciously murdered. The killer (James Hébert) is eventually caught, and the father spends the rest of his life stalking his daughter's killer. The twist is a devious one.

That little tale fits into the central one, but there are others that do not, such as when Zachariah (Tom Waits) arrives at Billy's door to tell Marty his story (Billy places a want ad calling for psychopaths to come and tell their stories). He recounts how as a young man (Brendan Sexton III) he and young woman named Maggie (Amanda Mason Warren) went around the country killing serial killers; it does not have a happy ending but not in the messy way one might expect.

Perhaps Zachariah's story doesn't fit in directly, but then again, there is a masked man, calling himself the "Jack of Diamonds," running around executing Charlie's goons. Another story of revenge revolves around a Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen), who is holed up in a hotel room and plotting to exact vengeance upon those who ruined his life. Marty likes his invention simply because of the central image; the way in which the anecdote blossoms is quite astonishing.

The characters similarly flourish under McDonagh's care, especially in the hands of this cast. Rockwell is an unpredictable force, playing a character whose potential for sympathy ebbs and flows with each new detail about his character. Walken plays the wise and wizened point of sanity in this insane world even as his character's own sanity comes into question. Harrelson is devilishly maniacal, and Farrell is the closest thing to an anchor of normalcy, which is especially important as the film approaches its inevitability violent climax. Also worthy of note is Linda Bright Clay, who plays Hans' cancer-suffering wife; she lends a much-needed spot of dignity in her two scenes.

Seven Psychopaths has a wicked sense of humor, not only about its characters but also about itself. There's a long section in which the three men simply roam and camp out in the dessert, a choice that Marty would like incorporate into his own screenplay. Billy has other ideas, and Hans has his own. This time, the conversation might have the artificiality of shop talk, but that doesn't prevent truth from coming out of it.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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