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.
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.