Retrospective: Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Like many, I was eager to see a new movie from Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of 2008’s glorious dark comedy In Bruges. McDonagh’s follow up Seven Psychopaths is a fantastically good laugh and also rather deep but in my eye it doesn’t quite have the same magic as his debut.

This is partly because of its over-reliance on its setting making it a bit too meta for its own good as its a gangster story set in California and constantly aware of its place within the genre of the Hollywood crime movie which rather blunts the edge of the movie.

However, it’s got a fantastic cast with Colin Farrell playing the straight man to a bunch of lunatics such as a scriptwriter named Marty, writing a movie about seven psychopaths. He is joined by his best mate Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) and Hans Kieslowski (the wonderful Christopher Walken, a man needing no introduction) who is a partner in crime with a cancer suffering wife. From these modest beginnings the plot spirals out of control and like In Bruges it’s based around the principles of the honest crooks and the murderers with a cause. That is how the movie and the screenplay is brought to life. After Billy steals a gangster boss’s prize Shih Tzu (known as Bonnie) from Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), Billy again puts out an ad looking for psychopaths and we are introduced to the wonderfully insane Tom Waits. It’s very funny in a black humorous way and also a bit slapstick (not that the rest of the cinema found it particularly funny).

This movie is very clever as it references both itself and other movies of the genre. The nuances of the different stories gain in strength as the movie goes on as initially they seem like Steven Segal type plots from action-revenge movies but gradually each psychopath becomes much more interesting and even profound. For example, the first psychopath is a murderer who hits ‘members of an Italian crime syndicate and the Yakuza’ …. ‘We can’t have the Yakuza in the movie – Japanese voiceovers are really difficult’. It’s a very clever look at how much reality and the movies collide especially if you’re a drunken screenwriter in Hollywood.

Its self-referentiality doesn’t always work. It’s particularly meta in its naming of various characters: Bickle is of course the name of the Taxi Driver in the movie of the same name, Kieslowski is the name of the character in Vanishing Point, Costello is the name of the gangster in The Departed, Bonnie is the name of one of the central characters in Jackie Brown. It’s drenched in references which is actually a bit of a shame because I would have loved further breaking down of the scriptwriting.

With a cast this good, it doesn’t need saying that the acting is top quality but the movie has a distinct lack of female characters (something the characters have a nice argument about). There are many similarities to this and In Bruges and also The Guard (directed by Martin McDonagh’s brother) such as the use of polite gangsters and gunfights, which feel preordained because that’s just what happens in the movies. Like his other film, religion appears but it’s not quite so visible this time but instead it’s shown through a battle between two ideas of religious freedom: free will and predestination.

Like In Bruges, it is wordy, detailed and quite complex with lots of plots flying around but lacks that wonderful neat storyline that his first movie showed about forgiveness and the weight of sins and children. To use a neat city analogy, it uses the sprawl of Los Angeles rather than the cohesiveness of In Bruges. Both have benefits but I generally prefer stories which are cohesive.

All in all, Seven Psychopaths is a good, confident attempt at the difficult second film. He creates a unique look and style to his movies which seem to be finding depth in unexpected places, whilst finding black humor and pathos in many of the same places as his first.

Review By Harry Riedl

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