I hate it when would-be cinephiles say stuff like, “Clearly, the filmmakers didn’t know where they were going with the story, so they cobbled up a random ending at the last minute!” Movies aren’t shot in chronological order, you know. They aren’t written that way either. Take murder mysteries, for example. Do these beret-wearing hipsters really think the author makes up arbitrary clues to drop in the first two acts and then pieces them together in the third, hoping a believable crime will emerge? By the same token, would writer-director Martin McDonagh present us with a comedy called Seven Psychopaths if he hadn’t worked out who the seven lunatics are and how they should interact?
Well, maybe. After all, that’s what Collin Farrell does as Marty, an alcoholic writer struggling with his screenplay on account that he’s only figured out the title (“Seven Psychopaths”, of course). Through a series of ludicrous coincidences and an ill-advised newspaper advert from his pushy friend (Sam Rockwell), our hero encounters seven sources of inspiration, including a dog-loving crime lord (Woody Harrelson), a dog-stealing con artist (Christopher Walken), a bunny-carrying ex-vigilante (Tom Waits), and the mysterious Jack of Diamonds. We also meet a Quaker psychopath (Harry Dean Stanton), a murderous Vietnamese priest (Nguyen Long), and a serial serial-killer killer (Amanda Warren), at least one of whom turns out the product of an underactive imagination.
I dare not elaborate on the plot, which relies heavily on shock and absurdity, switching tones, genres, and plains of reality at every turn. The experience proves disorienting but not unpleasant, except perhaps in the final act, when we begin to suspect the filmmakers didn’t know where they were going with the story, so they cobbled up a random ending at the last minute. That’s all part of McDonagh’s plan, of course, as evidenced by the sudden bursts of deconstructionist dialogue. By the time we reach the conclusion, Billy has given up all pretenses, speaking as if he knows he’s a fictional character: “I told you: this movie is going to end my way.”
Though I’ve been a big fan of the device in flicks like Scream (1996) and Adaptation (2002), I feel self-referentialism may have devolved into an excuse for self-indulgence among clever indie filmmakers. The litmus test lies in whether a postmodern oeuvre discusses the fourth wall or merely points at it. Ever since Pulp Fiction revolutionized cinema in 1994, we’ve been getting a steady stream of knock-off comedies in which self-aware criminals do quirky things for quirk’s sake. Seven Psychopaths take the joke as far as any good movie can, I think, perhaps a few steps further.
Don’t get me wrong. A lot of it works, thanks to the impressive performances of veteran actors like Collin Farrell, who, as the lead, fully understands and embraces the thankless role of the straight man. Sam Rockwell also knocks it out of the park as the increasingly unhinged yet weirdly naïve Billy. However, the most powerful performance belongs to Christopher Walken, who one-ups all the other cast members by layering his brand of zaniness with a sad, fading sense of humanity. I didn’t just laugh at Hans’ refusal to cooperate with the men holding him at gunpoint. A part of me also mourned his will to live.
Unfortunately, Seven Psychopaths amounts to less than the sum of its parts, owing to its haphazard structure and elusive point. This is not to say the film lacks forethought. Quite the contrary, I suspect McDonagh might have over-conceived this one, obfuscating his musings about madness and storytelling with undecipherable flights of fancy. Consider Hans’ rousing retelling of the tale of the Viet Cong psychopath. There’s no denying it should close the movie, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, tell you why. I don’t particularly care to find out either, which is perhaps more damning a criticism than any know-it-all accusation.