24 hours after my screening, I’m still not sure what to think about Seven Psychopaths. This is one of those wind-up toys that movie geeks love dissecting – emulating the likes of Donnie Darko and Pulp Fiction with their multiple layers and twisty points of logic. Unlike those films, it doesn’t add up to much. Thankfully, it knows how to deliver a good time along the way.
The Meta crops up early on, with Marty the screenwriter hero (Colin Farrell) serving as an obvious stand-in for writer-director Martin McDonagh. He’s writing a screenplay called “Seven Psychopaths” – get it? – and can’t even figure out who the psychopaths are. Thankfully a few show up in his life, starting with his friend Bill (Sam Rockwell) and extending to Bill’s demented partner Hans (Christopher Walken), the crime lord whose dog they kidnap (Woody Harrelson), and a serial killer who hunts only serial killers (Tom Waits) among others.
McDonagh – who previously scored with the fascinating In Bruges – plays a mean rope-a-dope with his premise. He winds it up the same way a lot of Tarantino emulators do, with a complex plot centered around the abduction of the dog and plenty of razor-sharp dialogue punctuated by extreme violence. Then about halfway through, once we think we know where it’s all going, he shifts the movie-within-a-movie concept into overdrive. Marty starts musing about the best way to finish his screenplay while the characters search a way to end their dilemma – get it? – in a manner that doesn’t fall into cliché. In the midst of that, the overall concept loses its way, and the biting conversations that drove the film forward start to falter.
That isn’t in the plan, though a lot of the movie’s twists and turns are. McDonagh speaks directly to the movie geeks in the audience, playfully confounding our expectations while simultaneously pointing out the shallow thinking at the heart of the whole thing. He seems to be writing the story at the same time as his hero does, finding ways out of the cul-de-sacs only after he gets into them. It’s an amusing trick, but it loses its charm after a while... and even when it’s humming, it serves little purpose beyond demonstrating the director’s own cleverness.
Luckily, he’s still pretty damn clever. As a former playwright, his ear for dialogue is unparalleled, and with a fine ensemble to back him up, he can skate just by letting the characters chat among themselves. The violence exhibits a proper sense of playfulness as well: toying with convention and expectations before hitting us hard from unexpected directions. That concept extends to the cast, who often play against stereotype to marvelous effect. Farrell in particular, hits us with a curve ball: playing a twitchy nebbish in a film that seems to call out for a repeat of his Bullseye routine.
The results never reach the profundities they’re supposed to… but then again, that may be part of the joke as well. The crime story elements hold together adequately, even without the extra layer of self-referentiality, and the deeper you go, the more you suspect that we’re a part of the punchline. It can’t hold up the way it may want to, but the journey itself contains enough pure entertainment value to forgive it its self-indulgence. Seven Psychopaths will prompt lots of long discussions afterwards – prepare for a new round of flamewars in the appropriate forums – though they probably won’t amount to much. The fact that it engages us at all is more than enough, however. It’s been a while since an original movie appeared depending solely on clever writing and strong delivery to carry it through. Enjoyment here, serves as an end unto itself… which may turn out to be the cleverest twist of all.