2012 so far has seen a sort of mini-revival of the “meta” film, or more specifically the genre exercise that also finds the time to comment on and critique its own time-worn conventions. First, there was The Cabin In The Woods, a comedy about horror film conventions and clichés. Now, there’s Seven Psychopaths, which starts out in a similar vein as the early films of Quentin Tarantino and all the subsequent verbose crime films that bear his influence. It then takes a sharp turn in its final third and becomes a deconstruction of the modern crime/dark comedy genre, as well as a playful examination of the art of screenwriting. The film’s director is Martin McDonagh, an acclaimed playwright who also directed the terrific 2008 feature In Bruges. While Seven Psychopaths is not quite as great of an achievement as that previous film, the reasons for which I’ll describe in more detail below, it’s nevertheless a thought-provoking and mostly-successful follow-up.
I won’t devote too much time to summarize the plot, in part because I think it’s fairly inconsequential and doesn’t really factor much into what the film is all about. The narrative involves two dognappers (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken) who kidnap dogs and then return them for the reward money. It’s not long before they kidnap the wrong dog, and they are forced to evade the pursuit of its violent owner (Woody Harrelson, bringing with him some of the same mix of puppy-dog emotion and brutality that worked so well in Zombieland). Tangentially related to these events is a screenwriter (Colin Farrell), who is struggling with his latest movie idea (all he has is the title: Seven Psychopaths). Concerned with Farrell’s lack of progress, Rockwell places an ad in the paper calling for interested psychopaths who want to potentially be a part of the screenplay. Truthfully, the plot here comes across sometimes almost like a parody of the zany plots that usually accompany these types of crime films, and by the end of the film McDonagh has essentially pushed it to the side to make way for more interesting material.
Admittedly though, it does takes quite a bit of time before the film establishes its own identity and purpose. For the first hour or so, events proceed in a way that feels almost too derivative of the crime films that have come before it, in particular Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The dialogue is profane, sharp, and witty, beginning with a conversation between two hitmen (Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt in cameo roles, the first of many in the film) about famous figures, both fictional and non-fictional, being shot through the eyeball, and only getting more bizarre from there. There are stories within stories and also memorable appearances from grizzled veterans Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits.
There’s also some surprisingly nasty violence and a general misogynistic bent that feels fairly extreme, even by crime film standards where that kind of thing is usually par for the course. Even with this unfortunate element, it’s reasonably entertaining up to a point, although I was starting to worry that there wouldn’t be anything more to it. In Bruges was originally marketed with a trailer that made the film up to be very much in the Tarantino/Guy Ritchie mode of crime film, so it was a pleasant surprise when the film ended up having much more substance and heart than anything from those directors. I got the same feeling when watching the trailer for Seven Psychopaths, that the distributors were attempting to market a hard sell in a similar manner, so I was becoming somewhat discouraged and annoyed as the film continued to move along without much consequence.
Fortunately, the final section of the film is where things finally become more interesting, right around the time Farrell remarks that he wants his screenplay to end with his characters just talking in the desert, with his tale of violence ending on a life-affirming and humanistic note. And that’s pretty much what the film ends up doing. It’s here that the meta nature of the screenplay finally starts to reveal itself. The first two-thirds, with all the violence and misogyny and Tarantino elements, become what Farrell has written so far in his screenplay, and the final third consists of the three main characters (Farrell, Rockwell, and Walken) debating the perfect ending in the desert. While out there, McDonagh’s writing starts to level criticisms at what is commonly accepted as part of the genre, including the excessively dark humor and the poor treatment of female characters. If Farrell’s screenwriter character had his way, there would be no resolution to any of the madness of the first half. However, Sam Rockwell’s wilder persona makes sure that the audience at least gets something resembling a more traditional conclusion. It’s during this final section when the film steps out from behind its genre trappings and becomes something more perceptive and thought-provoking. Unlike something like The Cabin In The Woods, which has an admiration for its horror genre clichés, McDonagh seems less approving of some of the material commonly found in crime films, and the final section of Seven Psychopaths is devoted to making this sentiment clear.
I will devote a little more time to mention the performances, where there are a few standouts. Farrell makes for an effective straight man and surrogate for McDonagh, although he doesn’t have as much to work with as he did in In Bruges. He belongs in the same category as Ewan McGregor, in that his best performances are usually when he is allowed to keep his own accent. Sam Rockwell does what he does best, playing the manic personality with ease. His lengthy monologue detailing a potential screenplay ending for Farrell, complete with madcap visual accompaniment, is one of the big highlights of the film. Christopher Walken, in a break from tradition, handles most of the film’s emotional moments, and he pulls it off wonderfully. It’s his best performance in years. The rest of the performances range from solid and fun (Harrelson and Waits) to largely superfluous (Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko, despite their prominence in the marketing materials, only have a handful of scenes).
If I made Seven Psychopaths sound too much like a dry intellectual exercise, I’ll try to correct that by saying that the film is always engaging and frequently riotously funny. Those who only want to see another Tarantino-esque crime genre entry will find plenty to enjoy for most of the film’s running length. But I think placing more emphasis on the first half and then ignoring the virtues of the second half is an unfortunate dismissal of what the film is trying to say. It reminded me somewhat of films like Barton Fink and Adaptation, two films that also took on the subject of screenwriting in unique and genre-bending ways. Seven Psychopaths does not quite reach the heights of those two films. The first half is problematic, although it’s problematic by design. There’s a good chance that the film could play even better on a second viewing, when there is no uncertainty of McDonagh’s message. It’s been a little discouraging to read some reviews that, although mostly positive, just seem to see it as a typical crime film and nothing more, similar to how In Bruges has been similarly misrepresented. Like that film, Seven Psychopaths has more going for it than your typical entry into the genre. As Walken says late in the film after he’s finished listening to Rockwell’s crazy pitch for an ending: “I like it. It’s got layers.”