film seven-psychopathsFunny script, extreme blood, in genre satire ‘Seven Psychopaths’

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh made a splash—albeit a bloody one—with his first feature, In Bruges. A twisted tale of two Irish hitmen on the lam in the ancient Belgian city of art and culture, it had moments of appalling violence, yet it was also a scathingly funny, and fiercely moral morality play about violence, vengeance and redemption. I personally badgered many people who would not normally watch anything so brutal to go see it, on the strength of its witty script, anti-violence message, and insanely entertaining performances from Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes.

Now, McDonagh is back with more boys behaving badly in Seven Psychopaths. The story concerns an Irish filmmaker named Martin in Hollywood, trying to write a new screenplay, but it’s not exactly McDonagh’s 8 1/2; it’s more like his Alex In Wonderland, a well-intentioned and often entertaining sophomore effort that doesn’t always hit all its marks. As self-referential to its genre as a Scream movie, its film-within-a-film format allows McDonagh to deconstruct the crime/buddy/gangster thriller, and point out all its clichés and weaknesses, while trading on them shamelessly. The degree of bloodletting is utterly absurdist, but the character comedy is still funny, even if it lacks the cohesion and moral force of In Bruges.

Farrell stars as blocked screenwriter Marty; all he has so far is a title, “Seven Psychopaths,” and a vague idea that one of them should be a Buddhist monk, or possibly Amish. This time around, it’s Farrell’s job to play straight man to a looney-tunes cast, starting with Billy (Sam Rockwell), an excitable, unemployed actor desperate to help Marty write his movie. Billy moonlights in a dog-kidnapping scam with genteel grifter, Hans (Christopher Walken); they dog-nap pooches in the park, then return them the next day for whatever impromptu cash rewards the grateful owners provide.

But one day they kidnap the wrong dog, a sweet little Shih Tzu named Bonny, whose bereft owner, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), is a maniac gangster who will stop at nothing to get her back. While Marty spins fictional scenarios for that Amish avenger (the redoubtable Harry Dean Stanton), and Vietnamese Buddhist (Long Nguyen), the plot is thickened by a bunny-cuddling stranger (Tom Waits) with a tale of his own vigilante past, and a serial killer calling himself Jack of Diamonds running amok in L. A. As real-life psychopaths close in, the leery Marty (through an increasingly alcoholic haze) has to decide what he stands for and what kind of a movie he wants his life to be.

McDonagh’s targets are ripe for satire, from Irish drinking to the conventions of the gangster genre. Funny debates ensue on whether a person’s head could actually explode, and why women characters are only there to get naked, or killed. (“You can’t let an animal die in a movie, only a woman,” Billy clarifies.) But calling out these tired “rules” is not the same as breaking them; aside from a couple of brief scenes with Hans’ spirited African-American wife, Myra (Linda Bright Clay), McDonagh’s few female characters are marginalized nonentities, while too much splattering blood becomes just as tedious in satire as in any other context.        

Yet, McDonagh keeps surprising us with his thoughtful take on violence and media—in a rewrite of the Vietnamese monk story that doesn’t end in the expected “carnage and horror,” but is just as powerful, or the coda in which a threat of revenge is deflated by a passive response. Walken (of all people) has the most sympathetic role; his Hans is the movie’s weary, tattered soul, while Farrell underplays beautifully as the wide-eyed Everyman. (His eyebrows alone deserve their own Oscar.) When his Marty cries, “I don’t want to write that kind of movie any more!,” we hope McDonagh, too, may now be ready to move on.

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS ★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

With Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Woody Harrelson. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh. A CBS Films release. Rated R. 110 minutes.

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