As the bits of bone and flesh continue to rain down on Los Angeles in Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths—by the pool, in the cancer ward, under the Hollywood sign—a strange calm creeps into the story despite the ratcheting chaos. As bushy-browed and alcoholic screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) is drawn deeper into the unexpected consequences of a dognapping perpetrated by buddies Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken), the story zigs and zags in dubious patterns that should leave moviegoers confused, albeit visually satiated. With McDonagh steering the ship, however, Seven Psychopaths successfully navigates these waters with his trademark dark humor and panache.
McDonagh’s In Bruges (08), another sharp ’n nasty bloodbath with Farrell at the fore, was in many ways a springboard for Psychopaths' scatter-shot ensemble of characters, flashbacks, and sympathies that remain cohesive despite the narrative insanity. Superseding Tarantino, Soderbergh, and Guy Ritchie, McDonagh manages to render his Psychopaths human and sympathetic without becoming too vicious, too absurd, or too cool for their own good. Recent ensemble pieces marketed like Seven Psychopaths (Snatch, The Usual Suspects, Inglorious Basterds, Ocean’s Eleven) have been guilty of cobbling characterization out of split-second flashbacks—a face with a gun, but not a real character. No such indolence here. Rockwell and Walken give their best performances since Galaxy Quest and Pulp Fiction respectively, meeting McDonagh’s grimy frank nihilism with manic enthusiasm and deader-than-deadpan antagonism. Woody Harrelson and Tom Waits round out the violent machismo fantasy (all female characters are quickly killed or undressed and forgotten) as the bloodthirsty mobster with eyes only for his missing Shih Tzu and a soft-spoken stranger who has traded his machete for a bunny rabbit careen through Los Angeles.
McDonagh continuously crumples expectations, from Harrelson's weepy gangster to larger structural choices. Marty’s attempts to finish his screenplay (also titled Seven Psychopaths) shares precedence with survival, and the film takes a breather before the third act as Marty, Billy, and Hans head for the desert to lay low and spitball ideas in a sequence surely meant to stand as the introspective moment of darkness. But McDonagh’s writing inspires confidence (nothing is ever taken too seriously), and it ends up as one of the film’s brightest spots. Seven Psychopaths is able to laugh at itself and its industry (the opening scene offers an illustratively graphic Jules-and-Vincent dialogue between Boardwalk Empire's Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) without pandering to its audience. Fittingly, it is the psychopathy that defines and refines the film: absurdism, farce, and a dash of discomfort make for another jewel in the crown of the crime prince of directors.