Seven Psychopaths is an enjoyable movie, but not entirely a successful one. It attempts to have its violent cake and soulfully eat it, too. And the fact that the film is so bloody self-conscious and metatextual about it would seem to prove that it’s an impossible task—or at least one beyond the filmmaker’s reach.
Irish screenwriter/director Martin McDonagh gives us the story of an Irish screenwriter named Marty who is not getting any writing done, is probably an alcoholic, and is trying to turn the title “Seven Psychopaths” into a movie that’s about more than violence. As the film ticks off seven real and imagined (within the film’s context) psychopaths, we are beat over the head with the film’s objectives, as discussed by the characters, to such a degree we could have McDonagh charged with assault.
The most blatant case is when Marty (Colin Farrell) and his best friend (Sam Rockwell) argue about whether their movie—and their story—should end with grown-up intellectual discourse about peace, or a violent desert shootout. This, at least, is played for comedy, and we all know the film will go out with a bang. But it gets tedious, and when Christopher Walken reads Farrell’s script in draft and tells him that his female characters are negligible, and Farrell shrugs it off, we see it as the dig against Hollywood indifference to women that it is. But that doesn’t excuse McDonagh from failing to actually write more than one decent, interesting or significant female character (and zero who’d pass the Bechdel) into the film.
As the film’s Marty struggles to come up with a Hollywood action script, you get the feeling that McDonagh had the same problems, and he’s thrown the various pieces of various failed drafts into one script, which is why we have dream sequences, overlapping versions of the same story, and a remarkably uneven tone. Overall, the cast and direction pull it off, but just barely. Sheer gratitude that you’re not watching any of the crap movies it’s trying not to be really helps.
The film has a loopy unpredictability. And it has a great cast that makes use of the movie’s core conceit. Marty’s struggle to write a violent psycho film “that’s about love” means the movie we get is shot through with love. It’s nearly every character’s motivation, no matter how absurdly expressed. And we get both national treasure Christopher Walken and the great Tom Waits playing hilariously oddball murderers who, we learn, are motivated by love and loss of love. Thus each fine, quirky actor is given the opportunity to move us amidst the gunplay (with backstories that weirdly echo one another).
Though the separate styles never gel, and though McDonagh at times wears his influences too boldly (Elmore Leonard via Quentin Tarantino, in the first scene) one must applaud that he has tried to make something new, something that balances commerce and art. Where his vision is flawed, we can only hope he nails it next time.