Film Review: Seven Psychopaths

Over-the-top but often side-splitting comedy about a struggling L.A. screenwriter whose criminal pals put him in major jeopardy.

Seven Psychopaths is an alternately hilarious and horrifying comedy from the poison pen of Martin McDonagh, the prize-winning author of darkly funny stage hits like The Lieutenant of Inishmore and A Behanding in Spokane and the irresistibly nasty 2008 film In Bruges. His second feature is set in Los Angeles and centers on a struggling screenwriter named Marty played by Colin Farrell, which gives McDonagh free rein to go all meta and comment on the tropes of violent movies and our expectations about the very movie we’re watching. The graphic content, witty dialogue digressions and playful structure are reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, with the added bonus that McDonagh is not just movie-literate.

Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, who co-starred on Broadway in A Behanding in Spokane, have juicy roles here as conspirators in a dognapping scheme: Marty’s impulsive, out-of-control pal Billy and his elderly partner Hans. Big trouble erupts when Billy abducts the beloved Shi Tzu of a ruthless gangster played by Woody Harrelson.

The main storyline is buttressed by a series of side tangents as Marty attempts to flesh out and find something original to add to his bare-bones notion of a movie called Seven Psychopaths. (The title is really all he has.) The cavalcade of unorthodox psychos includes a vengeful Quaker, a Buddhist out to settle a score with the U.S. over Vietnam atrocities, and an interracial couple that gets medieval on serial murderers. (So now we know what happened to the Zodiac killer!) But little does Marty suspect that there’s a psycho available for study very close at hand.

Those unaccustomed to McDonagh’s shock tactics may be deeply offended by the politically incorrect language, the over-the-top violence, and the movie’s treatment of women (which is noted numerous times in debates between pacifist-leaning Farrell and pure-id Billy). But go with the satiric intent, and you’ll be laughing out loud at the movie’s cartoonish carnage, deconstructions of pop-movie clichés, and the very idea of a hapless screenwriter who wants to make a meaningful social statement out of a project titled Seven Psychopaths.

The movie loses a bit of its comic momentum during a long interlude in Joshua Tree National Park, but that trip is a necessary to the old-fashioned western showdown that climaxes the story. There’s no flagging of energy by the leads, however: Rockwell pretty much steals the film as the gleefully reckless Billy, but he’s beautifully complemented by Walken’s unflappable Hans (and those unique, off-kilter Walken line readings). Farrell is the exasperated, foolhardy straight man here, but he fills the job well. Harrelson doesn’t overplay his savage character, which makes him all the more intimidating. And beloved singer-actor Tom Waits has a priceless featured role as a most unusual psycho who answers a classified trade ad placed by the mischievous Billy.

With its extreme approach to black comedy, Seven Psychopaths won’t be for everyone, but a certain kind of avid moviegoer (and fans of film-industry sendups) will eat it up.