Seven Psychopaths is the second movie to open this weekend that involves filmmaking, or in this case, screenwriting. Argo is that other movie. But here we have Colin Farrell’s character Marty as a screenwriter in Los Angeles trying to write a script and all he has is the title—Seven Psychopaths. It sounds as intriguing a title as Seven Samurai (1954). Director Martin McDonagh who did the very excellent In Bruges (2008, also starring Farrell), ratchets it up several notches—as in conflict for our writer and his friends—while still trying to maintain the comedic irony of violent men living in and around another cultural city center (like the Belgium city of Bruges for In Bruges). Seven Psychopaths is very promising even if at times it seems to try too hard while at other times not trying enough. Sam Rockwell also stars as Marty’s close friend Billy Bickle, a nod to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1977), who in the grand scheme of things could really be a psychopath. The conscious and unconscious efforts to reference a character like Martin Scorsese’s Bickle—or tap into the chapter structure of director Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994)—with groupings of scenes and sequences that involve the film’s reality and Marty’s fiction is what drives Seven Psychopaths stylistically. It’s not really anything we haven’t seen before, except that we get to see Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson and singer Tom Waits as potential psychopaths together on screen. For a specific audience, the cast alone will be worth the price of admission. The title though is what sells it.
The Story: Bickle tries to help Marty by keeping him on task with Marty’s screenwriting though Bickle is also involved in some nefarious activities with Hans, played by Christopher Walken, as they kidnap dogs from Hollywood owners and return them days later for the reward. Until they kidnap the wrong dog, Bonnie, a cute little Shih Tzu owned by gang boss Charlie (Harrelson). Charlie could very well be psychopathic as well, and as he’ll stop at nothing to get the dog back it becomes a psycho on psycho plot (with smatterings of multiple other psychos) when Bickle refuses to give the dog up.
The Goods: The key word here if you haven’t notices is psycho. Yeah, there are some crazy characters here and none more crazy than Rockwell’s Bickle. In fact Rockwell gives a tour de force performance that really should get some critical acknowledgement. Batty, babbling, bouncing Bickle who is a pro at kidnapping dogs, just as he is at point blank assassinations. But he’s seemingly sane with friend Marty who Bickle tries to help with both the writing and Marty’s alcoholism. I liked Rockwell’s crazy bad guy in The Sitter (2011), and his depressing human-type self in Moon (2009), and, well, Bickle is a combination of those mental characters.
Most importantly, director McDonagh tries to get as entertainingly psychological with the art of the film as best as possible without losing audience members. Meaning the film’s structure cross-cuts between a reality we see outside of Marty’s imagination and what we see within his literature. Scenes then become a little dreamy, a little subliminal to the point where you’re not sure what exactly is the film’s reality and what is fantasy. It’s the strongest film element of Seven Psychopaths. Other than the fact they get to talk about screenwriting.
The Flaws: While I like the literary aspect of the film it’s still more novel-like than screenplay. Meaning there’s more dialogue and talking than there really needs to be. Especially since McDonagh is trying to be stylish with the film’s imagery and composition. Scenes often take on a painterly quality, and with words on screen letting you know what number of the seven psychopath’s we’re dealing with the overall feel of the film is quite graphic-novelish, with a feel like a glossy magazine or website. At times maybe even a comic book. But with so much going on between characters McDonagh doesn’t let that art breathe.
Because of what is trying to be accomplished here with style and feel we lose the adhesive suture of character and story that usually glues you to movies. Had this been solely Hans’ film, or Bickle’s we might have something different. Instead we have a sort-of silly run-on of appearances that’s reminiscent of post-Pulp Fiction films 2 Days in the Valley (1996), Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), or One Night at McCool’s (2001). Even the Coen brothers’ film The Lady Killers (2004) can claim failure within the muddle of its excess.
Sam Rockwell in Seven Psychopaths is basically Corey Feldman to Colin Farrell's Corey Haim, is the best way to describe it. Yeah, I felt at times like I was watching one of those senseless, silly teen 80’s adventures like License To Drive (1988) that always took a back seat to the same genre of films from John Hughes.
Better films are No Country for Old Men (2007, also starring Harrelson), or The Usual Suspects (1995) where there is a clearly defined threat to a clearly defined hero; The Usual Suspects being the better example compared to Seven Psychopaths since we’re dealing with a group of characters here where No Country for Old Men is what Seven Psychopaths should strive for in terms of bad guy representation. Charlie Kaufman’s scripts for Adaptation (2002) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) venture into the same dreamer territory as well but directors Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, respectively, make those cerebral scripts work with their attention to protagonist.
In Seven Psychopaths a bad guy’s little dog is not enough motivation to cause menace for me. Or at least McDonagh doesn’t give Charlie and his dog that kind of time or development to warrant the troubles Marty and Bickle seem to run into. At best Hans is the one who should really be pissed and you’ll see why. This should be Hans’ film. But too if you’re going to have a dog be the center of your film’s main conflict, there should obviously be more dog. As Good As It Gets (1997) is probably the best example of how a dog creates “character” in the film’s central figure, Melvin (Jack Nicholson’s character), changing him for the better, while also creating dynamic relationships between Melvin and the other leads.
The Call: Stow the dough. While Seven Psychopaths presents some cool scenes and a strong, dark comedic edge (not to mention a gnarly human “explosion”) there’s still too much going on at times entertainment-wise and not enough at other times character development-wise leaving the story’s through-line feeling very wishy-washy. This is not the kind of script budding screenwriters would want to submit to an agent. Get Shorty (1995) might be more of what you’re looking for.
Rated R for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use. Running time is a good 1 hour and 49 minutes.
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