Playwright turned director Martin McDonagh’s work is always gleefully offensive. In his films and plays, his characters joke about the disabled, racism, and torture. Blood and profanity nearly have a one-to-one ratio, so his work will never be for the timid. In Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh’s latest, he adds a cerebral streak while preserving his sharp dialogue and dark comedy. There are times where he pushes his film into head-scratching meta-territory; it doesn’t always make sense, but the laughs remain abundant.
We open with a perfunctory double murder. Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg exchange lines briefly before a psychopath shoots them in the head. This is an early scene from the script “Seven Psychopaths,” which is being written by Martin (Colin Farrell), an Irish alcoholic living in LA. He drinks more than he writes, which gives him time to hang out with Billy (Sam Rockwell) the struggling actor. Billy supports himself with a kidnapping business: alongside his colleague Hans (Christopher Walken), Billy steals dogs for the ample reward. After Billy and Hans steals a Shih-Tzu from the wrong gangster (Woody Harrelson), Marty joins them as they hide in the dessert.
The key thing to realize is there are two movies happening concurrently. On one hand, there is a goofy dialogue comedy where strange friends drop f-bombs and get into trouble. At the same time, there is movie about screenwriting: Marty learns how to write “Seven Psychopaths” by living Seven Psychopaths. Or maybe not? McDonagh operates on several planes of reality, so it’s never quite clear whether we see what’s actually happening or Marty’s whacked-out imagination. This approach is clever and fun to dissect; the only downside is how forces us to disengage from the characters. We can’t care about them, exactly, when their creator calls into question whether they exist.
Even if the big picture is murky, individual scenes hold up as comedy. Hans has weird ideas about pacifism, for example, so he won’t acknowledge the danger of a gun being pointed at him. In a nervy performance, Farrell keeps freaking out as Marty. As with all characters, McDonagh gives him a peculiar cadence and values, and has fun seeing how they clash. He’s unafraid to introduce characters for the sake of weirdness. Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits make big impressions with small appearances. There is a sub-plot where a deranged Buddhist monk is hell-bent on murder. Ironically, it’s the self-commentary that holds all these threads together: in a more traditional narrative, the psycho monk would be unacceptable.
Seven Psychopaths would collapse on itself if the actors did not begin with their already well-honed personas, and then tweak them for McDonagh. Harrelson’s deliberate delivery gives his gangster character more focus and anger. Walken’s reputation precedes him, and it’s to the point where his any unusual situation is given more credibility by his presence. Like McDonagh’s Broadway play A Behanding in Spokane, he gives his lines crackling energy. Sam Rockwell was in that same production, and again he develops a sinister character below the surface of a goofy persona. Not many actors can pull it off, but his experience in Moon and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind help him here.
McDonagh ends Seven Psychopaths with a series of stand-offs, each more crazed than the last. An early line foreshadows how these stand-offs will play out, yet they still manage to surprise and sometimes shock. In between the violence, McDonagh sneaks in bigger ideas. Instead of morality and justice, the themes of In Bruges, he focuses on inspiration and the creative process. At first blush, headier ideas are more ambitious, but a traditional narrative gives him an opportunity to cut deeper. It’s fun when I laugh so that I may not think; I’d just prefer to laugh so that I may not cry.