by Clayton Shank
“Ghandi was wrong. It’s just nobody has the balls to say it.” – Billy (Sam Rockwell), Seven Psychopaths
Two thugs debate the precise details of John Dillinger‘s death on a Los Angeles street. They’re anxiously waiting to kill an unnamed girl. A man in a red mask approaches behind them in the distance. His hands are tucked in his jacket. He comes closer. And closer. Closer still until he’s totally in focus, directly behind them. He brandishes two pistols and executes them point blank in the back of the head…the exact same killshot which befell John Dillinger. The masked man throws a Jack of Diamonds on each bloody corpse and walks away. He is the Jack of Diamonds killer, and he is a psychopath.
Such is the setup and general tone for the aptly named Seven Psychopaths, a mercilessly black humored film from writer/director Martin McDonagh. After the two goons have expired, we pick up on Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter with a fondness for the drink suffering from writer’s block. He’s come up with a title for a new screenplay, also titled Seven Psychopaths, but not much else. We learn he intends his screenplay, ironically, to be a message of love and peace. His first idea for a psychopath is a Buddhist monk. Unfortunately for Marty, however, he is friends with Billy (Rockwell), who we learn will ensure love and peace is hard to come by. Billy runs a dog-napping for ransom business with co-conspirator Hans (Christopher Walken). Walken, bless his heart, is easily the standout here, fully utilizing his recent cultural persona as a man capable of uttering the most ridiculously funny things with the most ridiculously serious of faces. His paraphrasing of an old Ice-T song had me gasping. The plot begins its inevitable downward spiral when Billy and Hans abduct the adorable shih tzu of Charlie (Woody Harrelson, also terrific), a connected psycho-killer of the most classic variety, in that he doesn’t try very hard to hide it. The resulting bloody mess is best left for the pleasure of the viewer to untangle and shouldn’t be spoiled here.
Remixing a page from the Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) playbook, McDonagh cleverly spices up the narrative by interweaving Marty’s quest for a great screenplay with the screenplay of his film. Cliches found in serial killer films and thriller films in general are addressed, sometimes verbally, then butchered, exploited, and even strangely fulfilled. One by one, we are introduced to various psychopaths, some real, some not, some inspired by real characters, including a former Viet Cong posing as a preacher who’s bent on avenging his slain family, and a vengeful Quaker who psychologically torments the man who murdered his daughter. If this sounds overly serious, fear not. It’s hysterical. Seven Psychopaths builds and cashes in its gory comic scenarios and one-liners with the tenacity of an anarchic jester, peaking with one gut-busting fantasy piece (literally and figuratively) in a cemetery that’s the funniest damn thing I’ve seen all year. Perhaps most rewarding of all, numerous gags are set up and abandoned only to pay off much later, after you’ve forgotten anything was setup to begin with.
McDonagh’s previous film was 2008′s In Bruges, also starring Farrell, hailed by many, including myself, as a near masterpiece. Like In Bruges, he has assembled a dream cast of character actors fully willing to embrace every knack and extravagant idiosyncrasy in his theater of the absurd. Never a monotone filmmaker, McDonagh also knows when to splice in a melancholy moment to add a quasi-tragic angle to the events that unfold. Seven Psychopaths doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of that earlier gem, as its plotting isn’t as airtight and it meanders a touch in the middle, but there’s plenty of delicious meat here for the dark comedy-starved masses to chew on. Dig in. And for Heaven’s sake, always honor the wishes of an unstable man who carries around a pet rabbit.