Playwright Martin McDonagh’s writing hits a unique pitch between dark, bloody satire and interpersonal conflicts that makes his finest work play like a combination of Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin. From “The Pillowman” to “A Behanding in Spokan,” McDonagh’s plays tend to begin with a ludicrous premise filled with colorful characters whose struggles eventually become real enough to allow for moving finales. With his second feature-length directorial effort following the gangster farce “In Bruges,” you have to look closely to see beyond the absurdities and appreciate the insight, but that’s only because the two ingredients are fused together with such enjoyably wacky finesse.
Despite its silliness, “Seven Psychopaths” bears the mark of a personal work if for no other reason than the lead character played by Colin Farrell is named Marty and suffers from a major case of writer’s block. Attempting to construct a screenplay with the movie’s title, he spends the runtime trying to figure out the identities for each of the psychopaths set to be featured in the story. Help arrives in the form of his two close pals, the peppy Billy (Sam Rockwell) and introspective Hans (Christopher Walken). Both actors appeared in McDonagh’s New York stage production of “A Behanding in Spokane” not too long ago, and their ability to have fun with this freewheeling material is evident; Walken, in particular, delivers his best performance in years, a welcome return to the over-the-top mock seriousness that defines Walkenesque.
But “Seven Psychopaths” moves beyond the neuroses of its bitchy writer protagonist to let his creations take the stage because Billy attempts to draw from real life and finds plenty of material. While his psychopaths are modeled after real people, the movie frequently cuts to Marty’s dramatized takes, and their glorified violence takes the movie through a series of calculated gags. The tale of the Quaker Psychopath, embodied by Harry Dean Stanton, is a matched only by the arrival of Tom Waits as a mopey psychopath who spent his formative years killing psychopaths. Then there’s the Vietnamese Rider (Ricky Titus), whose path of destruction develops out of more personal concerns.
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Marty also has to contend with real-life psychopaths, including a gun-toting Woody Harrelson, the gangster whose beloved Shih Tzu has been stolen by Billy and Hans. Harrelson, amusing deadpan as usual, launches a pursuit of the men that leads to a series of climaxes and revelations both confounding and entertaining for largely the same reasons. The problem is compounded by the ridiculous ingredients driving it. “You can’t let the animals die,” Billy insists when Marty complains about the gangster on their tail. “Only the women.” Truth and fiction merge until even Marty can’t quite sort it all out.
A less controlled and slapdash character piece than “In Bruge,” McDonagh’s new movie benefits greatly from a plethora of one-liners that toy with crime movie clichés in the unlikely context of writerly obsessions. When Marty complains about the clichéd use of guns in most crime scripts, one of his pals fires back, “They aren’t fucking leprechauns.” And yet it’s the air of breezy fantasy that transforms “Seven Psychopaths” from an ego-driven lark to an oddly spot-on analysis of the way fiction and reality can merge for those who attempt to draw from one to create the other.
The zany developments never slow down, but there’s still a general sense of carelessnessas it veers in and out of Marty’s developing screenplay. A keen anatomy of a slippery craft, “Seven Psychopaths” may not take itself too seriously and beckons viewers to feel the same way. But each strong jab in the ribs comes equipped with a dose of creative insight. It’s less a love letter to the writing process than a satire of those obsessed with it. Even if McDonagh doesn’t mean to imply that writing is a psychopathic behavior, the proof is in the gory pudding.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? CBS Films will release “Seven Psychopaths” on October 12. It may be too off-kilter and dark for many audiences but fans of McDonagh and the stars may help it find solid business in its opening weekend.