There’s a great movie in Seven Psychopaths, and although writer-director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) and his stellar cast haven’t quite found it, they have delivered a thoroughly enjoyable, cartoonishly self-reflective comedy.
By the time its Kaufman-esque meta-fictitious streak truly begins to settle in, you’ll realise that this blackly comic tale of a dog-knapping gone wrong is actually considerably more intelligent than it first appears; and while it does ultimately end up failing to fully deliver on its promising premise, there is plenty to enjoy here.
Colin Farrell – graciously taking the (fairly) straight lead role after his charged turn in In Bruges – and Sam Rockwell play a pair of misfit friends. Marty (Farrell) is an alcoholic screenwriter who is finding it difficult to get his latest script ‘Seven Psychopaths’ out of the early draft phase. In actual fact, he only has the title. Rockwell plays Billy Bickle (that surname is unlikely to be a coincidence), a struggling actor who, in his spare time, steals dogs from wealthy LA folks and returns them later for the reward. He does this with the help of the mysterious Hans (Christopher Walken).
At times the dialogue-driven set pieces can be reminiscent of Tarantino, particularly the opening, but to dwell on that too much would do a disservice to McDonagh’s dialogue, which for the most part is suitably dry and well constructed. There is space for some of In Bruges’ more un-PC humour, some of which is funny and some of which rankles, as well as some witty nods to genre tropes and clichés. Rockwell has tremendous fun as Billy, and gets a nice scene towards the end by a desert campfire. Walken, too, is very good value, even if his character’s message at the end of the film is frustratingly unsatisfying.
As the vicious gangster whose stolen Shih Tzu is the catalyst for most of the film’s narrative drive, Woody Harrelson gets to channel some of the more unhinged characters he’s played in the past, but with a deadpan edge, and Tom Waits turns up in a small role as a killer of serial killers. This actually leads to a flashback splattered with bloody, if cartoonish, violence.
The conclusion is a little drawn out and doesn’t quite deliver on what the film feels like it could have been (indeed, the acceptance that Marty’s script is conceding defeat to genre tropes does not entirely absolve McDonagh’s film of doing so), and there is a sense that the various elements of the plot haven’t quite gelled completely. If the film can be said to be about anything – underneath its easy-going surface, that is – then writer’s block is probably the defining topic under discussion. McDonagh doesn’t seem to understand, or particularly care, exactly how Marty’s script and his own are related, but film’s general likability helps to gloss over that fact.
Sometimes it is incredibly difficult to assign star ratings to films, and this is such a film. The sense that the different elements don’t really add up to much may well leave some feeling cold; for others, the sharp dialogue and comic beats will produce a similar fondness for the characters that In Bruges’ best scenes did. I feel it comes down somewhere between the two and, thanks to its memorable qualities, that’s just enough to earn a fourth star.