Seven Psychopaths: A Writer Gets Personal In This Meta Wonderland

Some films feel personal in the sense that they’re autobiographical: the details, the setting, and the heart are far too rich to be anything other than a true experience expertly recreated on the screen. Martin McDonagh– the writer/director of In Bruges and the award-winning playwright of such brilliant works as The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, A Behanding in Spokane, and more– has created a film in Seven Psychopaths that feels personal because, well, he is the subject. He tackles his insecurities, his inefficiencies, and his general struggles with writing and existence with great humor and honesty. This type of meta filmmaking, in which the film discusses its own creation, sometimes get unfairly labeled as “too intellectual” or “cold.” I don’t find McDonagh’s writing as cold in the slightest; it’s profane, shocking, but soulful. Seven Psychopaths is less conventional than In Bruges, but the farther it goes off the rails, the more I found myself in a psychotic state of bliss.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is an Irish screenwriter working in Hollywood on a drinking problem and a heavy dose of writer’s block. His agent is eager to get his new script, Seven Psychopaths, but all Marty has written is… the title. (It’s a hell of a title, though.) His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is an unemployed actor desperate to help Marty succeed. He’s also desperate for money, as he moonlights in the art of dognapping with an elderly gentleman named Hans (Christopher Walken). Unsurprisingly, Billy kidnaps the wrong dog, a Shih Tzu belonging to a gangster named Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson). As Costello kills everyone standing between him and his dog, Marty attempts to collect stories for his screenplay– some from friends, some overheard, some from actual psychopaths (Tom Waits). Somehow, Marty’s path keeps crossing with the dognapping and the gangsters, and eventually this leads him to go on the run from these thugs with a couple of his acquaintances… and at this point, the film REALLY starts cooking.

The first half of the film, while never venturing into predictability, still exists within the realm of the familiar. McDonagh’s trademark style of dialogue could make the most hackneyed scene hum with life, and he does scumbags and violence beautifully. His entire career has been made writing tales of violence cloaked with Irish-Catholic moral contemplation– is there a heaven? Does God exist? Will I face punishment for my behavior? Is violence with good intention justified? etc. The first half of this film, with its cutaways to lengthy tangential stories (common in his plays as well), is chock full of the usual. I make it sound boring; it’s not. It’s quite funny, full of blood and profanity, and introduces us to the outstanding characters we get to know over the next hour forty five. However, compared to the second half of the movie, the first half seems utterly benign.

The latter half drifts away from the usual and becomes a wild, ridiculous, unpredictable set of meta self-reflections as Marty attempts to finish his screenplay with some help. It’s as if every problem McDonagh has ever had with his own writing comes to light, and it feels like a breath of cinematic fresh air. Flanked by two characters, one with a taste for violence and one who believes violence is played out, we get to watch the manifestation of the angel and devil on Martin McDonagh’s shoulder, unfolding conflicting feelings as completely unpredictable twists and turns occur. And as the criticisms of Marty’s style take place, we see that McDonagh has created his own take on Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation– various parts of the film are given in-film commentary. Do you think Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko have nothing to do in the film? They don’t– that’s the joke. One character laments the lack of intelligent well-developed female characters, accusing Marty of misogyny. Marty attempts humorously to defend himself, but the proof is there in the film. Even the idea of studying psychopaths gets “tiring after a while,” someone tells Marty late… and we feel McDonagh’s fears and insecurities heavy on our own shoulders. Psychopaths are what he knows, what he’s good at… but can he do better? Is he capable of different? Marty continually says in the film he wants to do a different psychopath film with no violence, but Billy insists the audiences want violence. How can Marty reconcile his desire to grow with his knowledge of his strengths and his awareness of audience expectation? This final forty-five minutes make up the funniest and most surprising chunk of cinema I’ve seen to date in 2012.

People forget that behind the weirdness, Christopher Walken is one of the warmest actors of his generation, capable of great sensitivity. He’s been given here his best character since Catch Me If You Can, subverting our expectations of what a Walken role in a violent film would be. Hans’ relationship with his wife (played with grace by Linda Bright Clay) is oddly moving, and McDonagh understands exactly how to make his dialogue compliment Walken’s style. Everyone is terrific in the film– Farrell as the straight man, Harrelson as the nemesis, the always-reliable Zeljko Ivanek as Harrelson’s #2, Harry Dean Stanton in a small silent role– but the standout is Rockwell, who gives the best performance of a career full of strong work. He absolutely dominates the screen, with a snakelike smile, a propensity for fabrication, and a strong taste for violence in films and real life. He’s Martin McDonagh’s id personified, and it’s glorious to behold. Billy’s vision for how the film should end is a beauty of a monologue, one of the highlights of the film. Seven Psychopaths doesn’t give McDonagh as many opportunities as In Bruges did for simple lovely imagery (it feels like a very kinetic play at times), but it doesn’t really matter– his words are the film’s true star. He makes profanity poetry, he makes violence a thing of beauty. His general themes are always strong, but the meta turn in Seven Psychopaths gives this work a particularly personal twist. We’re watching a gifted writer expose himself… and it is wildly entertaining.

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~ by russellhainline on October 13, 2012.

2 Responses to “Seven Psychopaths: A Writer Gets Personal In This Meta Wonderland”

  1. Reblogged this on larockbands's Blog and commented:
    Looks good. Hope it has good music!

  2. [...] The Cabin in the Woods 4. Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom 3. Martin McDonagh, Seven Psychopaths 2. David Cronenberg, Cosmopolis 1. Tony Kushner, [...]

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