Funny, vulgar, blood-soaked, and stocked with wall-to-wall wackos, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths showcases the Anglo-Irish playwright/filmmaker’s signature brand of absurdist pitch-black comedy, made infamous by his plays The Lieutenant of Inishmore and The Lonesome West. McDonagh leans on the metafiction more heavily this time than he did with his debut feature, In Bruges (2008), which often played like Waiting for Godot as re-interpreted by Quentin Tarantino.
Seven Psychopaths certainly has a Tarantino-esque vibe to it, albeit more in the vein of the better Pulp Fiction knock-offs that abounded in the ’90s, but McDonagh is more interested in satirizing his style of geek gangster fantasy than in replicating it.
Colin Farrell re-teams with the director to play Marty, a hard-drinking Irish screenwriter transplanted to Los Angeles, where he’s struggling with a script titled Seven Psychopaths. He has writer’s block so bad that all he’s managed to come up with is the title and one psychopath. His best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), makes dubious attempts to help Marty by nagging him to dry out, and by placing a classified ad in LA Weekly desperately seeking psychos who’d like to have their stories told on film. It’s no surprise the ad works — this is Los Angeles, after all.
Marty gets more material than he bargained for when Billy and his partner Hans (a scene-stealing Christopher Walken) — the two operate a lucrative dog-napping business — unwittingly snatch a Shih Tzu belonging to a truly psychotic gangster (Woody Harrelson) willing to carve a bloody swathe across the city to get the mutt back. It’s ultimately a creative windfall for Marty, assuming he can live long enough to exploit it. Throw in movie-within-the-movie vignettes of Harry Dean Stanton as a vengeance-seeking psycho Quaker, Tom Waits as a bunny-toting psychotic hunter of psychos, and Long Nguyen as a Vietcong psycho terrorist who turns out to be — well, that would be telling — and the result is loopy but coherent work of metafiction.
That eclectic cast serves the material well, with even Walken sounding natural while delivering McDonagh’s carefully crafted dialogue. Farrell turns in some if his best recent work, though that may sound backhanded (let’s face it, Total Recall and Fright Night weren’t exactly challenging); he pairs well with Rockwell’s simmering turn as the human equivalent of a deranged puppy dog.
All of McDonagh’s storytelling mannerisms are there (though dog lovers will be relieved to learn that cuddly animals fare better here) but so is something new. If we’re to assume that Farrell-as-Marty is a stand-in for McDonagh, then his time spent in Hollywood over the past few years has apparently left its mark on the man. This is a movie taking the proverbial piss out the very style of movie Marty is banging his head against the wall to crank out, the same sort of violent fable about violent people McDonagh’s been swimming in for years. It’s almost as if he’s trying to exorcise himself. Think Adaptation as it might have been had David Mamet gotten his hands on it and you’ll get the picture.