Seven Psychopaths is a violent, funny, twisty crime story with a huge cast and body count but it’s also about friendship, Hollywood and – most importantly – storytelling. Writer-director Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to the wonderful In Bruges tells of an Irish screenwriter named (tellingly) Martin living in LA trying to write a script called (even more tellingly) Seven Psychopaths. It ain’t going so hot despite the encouragement of his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), an aspiring actor and part-time dognapper. When Billy and his pal Hans (Christopher Walken) end up taking the dog of a ruthless gangster played by Woody Harrelson the three men are soon up to their eyeballs in blood and, thankfully for Martin, good story ideas.
But though that brief plot description sounds like a decent enough trip on its own, folks familiar with In Bruges know that there’s more on McDonagh’s mind than just having a hoot-and-a-fucking-holler of a time at the movies. He is slyly commenting on the tropes of crime films without taking us truly out of the reality of the world he has created. McDonagh finds ways to discuss violence in cinema while also giving us tons of violence to satiate the bloodlust of the viewers, he shows boobs and has lame female characters only to later point out the troubling nature of such common issues in film. But though the references and satire are fun gags, McDonagh’s real interest seems to lie in the telling of stories, both through having his characters relate stories and telling the overall story himself as a visual artist (the scope and ambition of this film stylistically is much greater than the more contained In Bruges).
But all the cleverness, thematic concerns, hilarious lines, and glorious violence doesn’t mean shit unless we care about the characters, and man do we come to love the core group of dudes in Seven Psychopaths. Christopher Walken gives one of his greatest performances as Hans, the heart and soul of the film, an old man with deep wounds that go back decades. Sam Rockwell gets to have the most fun as the wild card best friend Billy, but he also brings real pathos to what could have been a one-note performance, especially when he finally gets his “perfect place for a final shootout.” And though Colin Farrell is given the audience (and writer-director) surrogate role and thus doesn’t get to showboat like the “psychos” around him, he grounds the film expertly like a classic leading man.
It’s a fucking shame how poorly this film is performing at the box office, especially after In Bruges was the sleeper of 2008, lasting in many arthouses across the US for many, many months. Maybe a similar roll out for Seven Psychopaths could have served it better, but then again it’s not like you can “discover” a film like this once a director has made as big a splash as McDonagh already has. But though the film ain’t walking away with the bank or anything, here’s hoping McDonagh gets more chances to make films this entertaining and thought-provoking in the future. Even if audiences shamefully don’t seem to give a shit, it’s clear that actors do, and this film will only earn him more acolytes there.