Because I’m fond of writer-director Martin McDonagh’s debut feature In Bruges, I was eager to see his follow-up, especially when I saw the dream cast of oddballs and originals he assembled, led by Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, and Woody Harrelson—not to mention such iconoclasts as Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits. All of this makes it especially disappointing to report how much I disliked Seven Psychopaths.
Farrell plays a screenwriter who’s got the title for his new screenplay (Seven Psychopaths) but nothing else to go on. I took this self-reflexive gesture as a bad omen, and I was right. The movie is about a guy trying to write a movie about psychopaths, only to find himself in the midst of sick, strange people…although he claims, repeatedly, that what he really wants is to write about peace and love. Uh-huh.
McDonagh claims the same thing. That’s a tough sell when you’ve made a film packed with extreme violence and offensive language. Just one example: Gabourey Sidibe makes a cameo appearance in one scene where she’s threatened with a gun and verbally abused by her psycho boss, played by Harrelson. He repeatedly refers to her “fat ass,” which is supposed to be acceptable because the words come from a disreputable character. But when they’re repeated, needlessly, several times there’s no way to mask their unpleasantness. (Late in the film, someone who reads Farrell’s screenplay criticizes his poorly-conceived female characters—another on-camera excuse for Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurlyenko’s underwritten roles.)
McDonagh wants to have his cake and smash it, too. A filmmaker doesn’t get a free pass to be disgusting just because he’s self-aware.
Christopher Walken manages to transcend the mean-spiritedness of the proceedings with a bright, typically idiosyncratic but wholly endearing performance. His character has a sweetness that separates him from his cohorts, although his backstory is just as seamy.
The other remarkable performance comes from Sam Rockwell as a bona fide psychopath. He is so kinetically alive in every scene that you can almost forgive his frightening craziness, which he justifies in a torrent of motor-mouthed dialogue.
Seven Psychopaths turns out to be something of a shaggy-dog joke, a story-within-a-story about a screenwriter who wants to forsake gunplay and other forms of violence for something more uplifting—yet offers us just that, in spades. I laughed, at first, at the absurdity of McDonagh’s set-ups, but after a while I stopped laughing and started squirming instead. This is a strange, sick, unsatisfying movie.