Remember when I was talking about the Irish sense of humor? It’s a wonderful thing sometimes. In dialogue, in characterization, and in feeling, it’s usually terrific. Seven Psychopaths (2012) proves that these wonderful things require a simple and mainstream plot to be successful. I went into this movie, as you know if you read my review of The Guard (2011), with a great deal of positive anticipation. I was looking for that comic, dramatic, crime-related film that was going to make me laugh, purse my lips in melancholy, and then laugh again. “I want it to be life-affirming.” You can’t just want a movie to be something.
Marty (Colin Farrell) is an Irish screenwriter and he’s behind on his newest script. The title is Seven Psychopaths, but that’s about as far as he’s gotten. His buddy, Billy (Sam Rockwell), wants to help and gives him a lot of inspiration to populate the screenplay. He tells him about the Jack of Diamonds (who is Psychopath No.1) who is a serial killer who only kills middle-to-high ranking members of Italian-American criminal syndicates (or the Yakuza–scratch Yakuza, it’ll save on all that Japanese speak), and introduces our film. Billy doesn’t like Marty’s girlfriend, Kaya (Abbie Cornish), and sees to it that that doesn’t last long (in movie time, anyway). Billy helps borrow dogs for Hans (Christopher Walken) to return them to their owners and collect the reward. Well, Billy has gone and nabbed Bonny, the psycho-mobster Charlie’s (Woody Harrelson) prize shihtzu. This leads to trouble. Now you know the half of it.
This movie has me seriously ambivalent. On one side, I really wanted to like this movie, and on the other I didn’t really like this movie. I laughed a number of times at the silly violence (which I’ll have to rationalize later against my dislike of Tarantino violence–first draft: it’s because Tarantino is suposed to be “Yeah!” violence and this is supposed to be “Pshhaw” violence–and I laughed at the other moments of zaniness or cute dialogue (“It’s okay, it’s their blood, his puke”). So I was mostly entertained. But then, as I alluded to earlier, the movie swallows itself up in this structural concept of a meta-narrative, typically reserved for the Coen Brothers, that it won’t strictly adhere to. It’s a nice idea, but the execution was lazy. Lazy is the word.
Here’s an example of the laziness. Billy puts out an ad in the paper for all psychopaths (who are now basically “okay”) to come by his house to try and get their psycho story into Marty’s screenplay. This leads to one person, Zacharia (Tom Waits), to come by and tell his (admittedly awesome) psycho story. That’s the only person ever to answer the ad. That’s lazy. It’s a half-executed idea. Writer/director Martin McDonagh came up with a neat plot point (the ad) that promises many laughs and then only has one response to the ad. “Maybe he only ever wanted one,” you say. Forgive me for making my opinions law, but in the language of movies, when you highlight and emphasize a writing (with voice-over reading out the ad), you are saying “This is a foreshadowing plot point, keep it in mind for future events.” That event turns out to be obvious, literal, and singular.
Fine that’s just one thing. Then, however, it turns to the chase. Charlie is looking for his dog, which Billy has, who is connected to Hans and Marty, and Charlie a number of thugs at his disposal (including Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kevin Corrigan, Zeljko Ivanek, and others). In other words, plenty of folks to make an exciting comic chase. That chase, however, consists of a couple loose near-misses between extended amounts of chat. Then they go into the desert and mess around and then things are tied up.
McDonagh has tried something. A comic look at Hollywood–our first sight of the film is the Hollywood sign–and its love of sex and violence, its piece-meal creations, its misogynistic and derivative nature. However, the form which this critique takes is absolutely antithetical to what I think a movie should be. It should be whole, consistent, and tightly woven. Again, if I’m right in my assessment of the movie’s purpose, this is intentional. I do not find such irony pleasing in itself. I feel like I’ve said that before.
Take, as comparison, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) which takes on an easier target (pulp/noir) but adheres to that style tightly and enjoyably. Take another example, Young Adult (2011) (review). That movie presents the usual romance/angst narrative through the main character’s writing but shows the dark reality of the genre’s mindset through the main story. Seven Psychopaths, though, is all analogy. It’s as if the message is, “See, this is why movies suck today.” Not a recipe for success. I fear that the only people to really enjoy it may be the fools it hopes to challenge and the would-be sophisticates who deplore the state of cinema in America. Another option would be to make a really good movie.
Wait, I said this movie was mostly entertaining. It is. That’s because of the great performances, especially from Walken and Rockwell. Sorry, Farrell, the price of playing the straight man, which you did quite well. Harrelson was too reserved as a psychopath. Instead of crazy or unpredictable, he was just a huge jerk who loved his dog more than people. We needed more crazy. As I said before, the dialogue is often very funny.
The direction was an issue. Pacing is a consistent problem. It was far too slow even when it wasn’t supposed to be. When it was supposed to be, it didn’t take enough time. I tend to think the semi-beautiful landscapes were deliberately de-beautied. Another unfortunate choice. If it were a choice. Maybe I’m all wrong and all the errors were just lack of art. But that strikes me as unlikely.
I’d give it a pass until it comes out on BluRay (or DVD, really).
Spoiler Complaint: So at the start, the two Boardwalk Empire (2010-) guys are going to kill a girl and it’s pretty clear that that girl was Angela (Olga Kurylenko), Charlie’s girlfriend, and then Charlie says later “He killed my girlfriend, who I didn’t really like very much.” If I’m right about the girl, and I am because Charlie counts them as killed by the Jack of Diamonds, then he should have said “He killed my girlfriend, even though I was going to kill her.” Right?