Skip to main content

This dog is my Patty Hearst.


Seven Psychopaths
(2012)

Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges is one of my favourite films of the past decade, hilarious and profound in equal measure. His follow-up may lack Bruges’ emotional through line, and thus its resonance, but in its own way Seven Psychopaths is just as perfectly formed.


Anyone who has seen the trailer for the film would be forgiven that this is the sub-Tarantino knock-off that some critics have dismissed it as. It features Christopher Walken, after all. It’s very funny little preview, and the use of the track Rocket Scientist suggests a whacky tone not so far from a more wired version of Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty (the film of which rode the post-Pulp Fiction wave of the reinvigorated crime genre). As such, I can understand the dismissive view that this is about 15 years too late, and is just riffing on material we’ve seen riffed on many times before. But, if Tarantino is the reigning king of the post-modern mélange, McDonagh’s has created a meta-commentary on Quentin’s so-cool-but-oh-so-very-shallow obsessions.


Although Psychopaths is very much its own beast, I was frequently put in mind of the Coen Brothers, whether it’s the movie business satire of Barton Fink or the imbecilic small-time crime of The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading. There’s even a touch of the more affecting sequences in No Country For Old Men (which also features Woody Harrelson). Coen regular Carter Burwell’s score only encourages such associations.


But even with Fink, the Coens aren’t really inviting the audience to admit the artificiality of the movie itself. McDonagh’s film is willfully self-reflexive, only stopping short of having characters directly addressing the camera (which I think would have worked; I was half expecting a final admittance by the film of it’s own fictionality that never comes).


Colin Farrell plays Marty (thankfully with his own accent; the actor’s best work invariably keeps him Irish), a borderline alcoholic screenwriter who has got little further than coming up with the title for his script (the same one as the movie). Marty’s friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) is an out-of-work actor with a sideline in dognapping. He and his partner Hans (Walken) abduct dogs and return them to their owners, gratefully accepting any cash rewards offered. It quickly becomes clear that Billy is, by way of anecdotes, providing Marty with most of the inspiration for his characters, although the latter is reluctant to let him co-write the screenplay. But Marty’s fictional creations begin to merge with reality when he becomes embroiled in the repercussions of the theft of a Shih Tzu belonging to gangster Charlie Costello (Harrelson).


Revealing any more would upset the cleverness of McDonagh’s confabulation and his deft character reveals. Suffice to say, he employs onscreen titles whenever one of the psychopaths is identified (again, a common stylistic choice in the modern crime movie). Throughout, characters tell tales that bear fruit further down the line, usually in the form of blackly humourous twists. And, when Marty and Billy argue over the merits of a particular approach to storytelling, the film itself soon adopts of these devices (Marty’s idea for the characters to spend the last half of his film camped out in the desert, in a life-affirming, non-violent conclusion).

Billy: Life affirming, shmife affirming. It’s about seven fucking psychopaths.

Hans chips in with his own analysis.

Hans: I’ve been reading your movie. Your women characters are awful.


Some have laid the charge that a smart alec line like this gives McDonagh a get-out for poorly written female characters, but it would hardly be an accurate reflection of the movies it is critiquing if Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko had been given fully-rounded roles. Not long after, the point is underlined when McDonagh reveals Abbie Cornish bouncing about in a wet t-shirt. 


There’s even a line observing that, in Hollywood, “you can’t let the animals die, just the women”. This was in direct response to a scene that was criticised in his original script. Perhaps as a consequence, McDonagh relishes the depiction of cutesy animals as a contrast to the carnage on display. In particular, the bunny rabbits take on Pythonesque (Holy Grail, that is) levels of surreality.


But, even though she isn’t excluded from Hans’ meta-critique, the most poignant moments all feature his wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay, who leaves an indelible impression in just a couple of scenes). Indeed, scenes such as these pack a punch absent from most of what we see from Tarantino and his “too cool for school” imitators. The dialogue also frequently appears as a direct rebuke of Hollywood’s more adolescent genre doodling (McDonagh and his brother consistently utilize such conventions, and the tone seems more affectionately self-aware than caustically scathing).

Hans: You’re the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting. They get kind of tiresome after a while, don’t you think?

The intimation throughout that the biggest failing of anyone is not the widespread sociopathy encountered but Marty’s alcoholism is just icing on the cake.


As with everything the McDonagh brothers have written, the script is stuffed wall-to-wall with dialogue to relish.

Marty: This Buddhist psychopath, he doesn’t believe in violence. I don’t know what the fuck he’s going to do in the movie.


This will be surely be one of the most quoted movies of the next few years;

Bllly: This dog is my Patty Hearst.
Billy: Ghandi was wrong. It’s just nobody’s got the balls to say it.
Billy: Are we making French movies now?
Hans: I’d have made a great Pope. I’m very lenient.
Charlie: He doesn’t have a gay head. He has a normal head.
Hooker: I’ve been reading a lot of Noam Chomsky lately.
Zachariah: Tuesday doesn’t really work for me. Can I get back to you? (needs context, I know)


McDonagh’s films may not have met with huge box office returns, but he’s clearly made a big impression in the acting community. The cast is an embarrassment of riches. In the first scene, he has two Boardwalk Empire stars cameoing as a sly wink to the audience. Farrell makes a fine foil for his larger-than-life co-stars, and he’s the perfect vessel for delivering McDonagh’s lines. Rockwell is never better, a naturally hyper-kinetic presence given the chance to bounce around in a ball of manic energy. Walken’s the most memorable he has been in years, and the director instinctively knows how use him as iconically as possible. Harrelson’s been on a roll lately, and revels in his psycho role; his scene with Gabourey Sidibe is a classic. Then there's the always welcome Zelikjo Ivanek. We’re even blessed with the presences of Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits (whose coda is a highly amusing inversion of the Hannibal Lector norm).


Hopefully McDonagh’s next movie it won’t be four years away (the gap between In Bruges and this). In the meantime we have his brother’s Calvary to look forward to. I don’t think I could decide which of them has the edge as writer/director. It would be a bit like asking who’s your favourite Coen brother.

*****


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

Perhaps I am dead. Perhaps we’re both dead. And this is some kind of hell.

The Avengers 5.7: The Living Dead
The Living Dead occupies such archetypal Avengers territory that it feels like it must have been a more common plotline than it was; a small town is the cover for invasion/infiltration, with clandestine forces gathering underground. Its most obvious antecedent is The Town of No Return, and certain common elements would later resurface in Invasion of the Earthmen. This is a lot broader than Town, however, the studio-bound nature making it something of a cosy "haunted house" yarn, Scooby Doo style.

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

The Worm is the Spice! The Spice is the Worm!

Dune (1984)
(SPOILERS) Dune was (still is?) one of those movies that seemed to be a fixture in student houses of “a certain disposition”, frequently played and part of the furniture, but not really absorbed. Easier to stare at rather than fully engage with. Unless, I presume, you were already an aficionado of Frank Herbert’s gargantuan novels. I’ve seen it said of the Harry Potter movieverse that you really need to have read the books to get all you can from them, but the only one where I really felt that was the case was The Prisoner of Azkaban, which seemed to have some whacking great narrative holes in need of filling. David Lynch’s Dune, the source material of which I also haven’t read, most certainly suffers from such a malaise, the measures taken to impart the dense plot overwhelming the challenge of making an engaging motion picture. It’s just too stuffed, too conscious of the need to move onto the next sequence or barely-defined character, such that it ends up simultaneously sha…