Following the success of his first full length feature, 2008’s In Bruges, playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh returns with Seven Psychopaths, a fiercely droll and self-referential comedy centred around alcoholic Marty’s (Colin Farrell) futile attempts to write a screenplay, for which he has little more than “a great title” – The Seven Psychopaths. Marty’s wish is to write a meaningful movie, transcending the cinematic clichés of sex, violence and “final shootouts”; his film instead is to conclude with characters “just talking”. Problems arise though when his “dog-kidnapper” friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) abducts a crazed gangster’s Shih Tzu, and a series of psychopaths begin to populate McDonagh’s own screenplay, leading a perplexed Marty towards an unavoidable “final shootout”.
There is a scene towards the end of Seven Psychopaths that is so deliriously entertaining that it showcases both the film’s strengths and its failings. Following the snatching of his beloved dog, local gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson) embarks on a series of disproportionately violent encounters aimed at finding his pet and its kidnappers, Billy and Hans (Christopher Walken). As the body count rises, the hunted trio drive out into the desert so that they might finish Marty’s script. As night falls, Billy gathers the group around the campfire to unveil his vision for the finale. In Billy’s scene, Costello is to come to a suitably theatrical graveyard alone, but when he appears with a heavily armed gang, Billy, Marty and Hans find themselves outmanned and outgunned. As Marty ducks behind a gravestone to write, everyone else opens fire with increasingly powerful weaponry. Suddenly from the darkness emerge the titular Seven Psychopaths, real and imagined (though distinctions are never clearly drawn): a pair of “Serial killer killers”; a masked vigilante who, according to Marty’s script “Only kills mid-level Mafia Yakuza”; a stoic Quaker who slit his own throat so that he might follow his daughter’s murderer to hell; and a vengeful Vietcong warrior armed with a flamethrower, who, as Billy shouts, “was hiding in a tree!” The scene ends as Billy’s imagined version of himself dies in Marty’s arms. Hans sits quietly for a while before delivering the killer line “I like it, it has layers”.
This scene perfectly captures everything that is best about Seven Psychopaths: McDonagh’s dialogue is always sharp and funny, like a terser Tarantino, and is delivered best by the wonderfully oddball pairing of Walken and Rockwell. There is also much to enjoy in the litany of fantastical psychopaths (Tom Waits’ lovesick serial killer is particularly gratifying). The self-reflexivity is pointed here: how can Marty begin to write anything profound when an audience really wants high-octane shootouts”?
As they discuss Billy’s scene, Hans asks “Do heads really explode?” Marty responds “They do if they’re filled with fucking explosives!” McDonagh appears to be railing against the expectation that a film should primarily sate baser appetites This though is what he has made: a film that is ruthless and hilarious but which lacks the empathy of his earlier effort; no scene, for example, packs emotional punch or will live as long in the memory as Brendan Gleason’s sacrificial leap in In Bruges.
Seven Psychopaths, with its terrific dialogue and exceptional cast, is well worth seeing. Indeed, directors of McDonagh’s undoubted talent have made far shallower metafictional films than this (one thinks of Tarantino’s own Kill Bill films). But if the main character’s struggle to write a screenplay that both entertains and “has layers” is understood as a manifestation of McDonagh’s own writing anxieties, it is worth noting that he had already confidently achieved this and more with In Bruges.