It would seem that following the success of “In Bruges,” writer/director Martin McDonagh went to Hollywood — and didn’t like the experience. A meta riff on making movies “Seven Psychopaths” is a sneering send-up of the industry that also revels in its action movie clichés. But if there is one thing certain about McDonagh’s sophomore feature film, it’s that it’s bigger in every sense than his debut. Boasting lots of gunplay, a big extended cast of stars willing to play along and a less witty, broader sense of humor, McDonagh tries to have it both ways by playing to the cheap seats while pointing out how absurd it is at the same time.
In a nutshell, the story follows Marty (Colin Farrell) who is struggling from writer’s block on his new screenplay for which he only has a few vague ideas and a title so far which is, you guessed it, “Seven Psychopaths.” But that’s hardly all he has to worry about. His constant drinking is driving his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) away, while his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) tries to assist with story ideas that are the total opposite of Marty’s goal to write something with heart. But all this gets pushed to the side once Marty becomes unwittingly involved in the standoff between Billy, his friend Hans (Christopher Walken) and gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), when they kidnap his dog to hold it for ransom.
Add into the mix a subplot involving Hans’ cancer striken wife and a mysterious masked killer who is going around taking down underworld figures, and “Seven Psychopaths” has a lot of narrative balls to juggle, and doesn’t always handle them satisfactorily. Now toss in a handful of dream/fantasy sequences as well, and it makes it all the more odd that the film struggles to maintain a sense of pacing, with things considerably sagging in the middle.
And while the various digressions from the main thread are usually meant as some kind of winking commentary on the process of making movies, McDonagh misses the opportunity to take it one step further. At one point Marty is told his female characters are particularly poorly written and thus — ha ha — Cornish and Olga Kurylenko (who plays Charlie’s girlfriend) don’t get much to do except whine and wear a wet t-shirt (the former) and roll around in lingerie (the latter). Wouldn’t a true subversion of action movie tropes be to give them something more substantial to do? And in regards to the cast as a whole, while the marketing has played up the various stars in the picture, most of them are reduced to extended cameo status, with the picture essentially positioned around Rockwell, Farrell and Walken.
And it’s really those three that carry the film through its less inspired patches. Farrell is essentially the straight man to the zaniness going on around him, while Walken is Walken and McDonagh gets pretty good mileage out of the actor’s trademark delivery (his line reading of the word “hallucinogens” might be worth the price of admission alone). But it’s Rockwell who audiences will be talking about most. Always an actor we want to see more of, here he emerges as the lead character and has a blast playing the unhinged and unfiltered Billy whose increasingly self destructive tendencies come to a boil as the movie winds torward its conclusion.
It’s hard to tell if those who loved “In Bruges” will dig “Seven Psychopaths.” Where the former film had a tightly honed and focused story coupled with a laidback attitude that let its irreverence and witty dialogue breathe and sing, ‘Psychopaths’ is a different beast altogether. It’s a constantly moving animal with violence usually played for laughs and dialogue and scenes not so much crafted, as swung and punched out wildly hoping that something sticks. The quantity of gags is both larger but also less refined, which means ‘Psychopaths’ tends to be a movie with a hit/miss ratio that will depend on your tolerance for the film’s restlessness, and a story that doesn’t really go anywhere and prefers a body count to actual narrative beats. (But yes, when it does hit, it’s quite funny).
By turns manic and exhausting, “Seven Psychopaths” is a movie that would hum at a trim and tight 80-90 minutes but feels overlong and baggy coming in at nearly two hours. Some are already (lazily) calling it a Quentin Tarantino-esque film that will be a future cult classic, but we’re not so sure. At its worst, it does feel like any number of post-“Pulp Fiction” movies that arrived in the ’90s but that’s hardly a compliment and it lacks the finesse and freshness of “In Bruges.” Moreover, its meta narrative about the movies doesn’t add anything to that subject that we haven’t already seen in other movies. Somewhat spastic and overcooked, “Seven Psychopaths” might have a few too many. [C]