Academy Award winner Martin McDonough (“Six Shooter”) had one of the strongest ever feature length debuts with his bleakly comic “In Bruges”. After seeing his latest film “Seven Psychopaths”, his might be the most disappointing second film since Richard Kelly’s “Southland Tales”. The film follows Colin Farrell’s hard drinking screenwriter as he tries to nail down his next film, which focuses on the lives of the titular mentally disturbed individuals with the help of his dog-kidnapping best friend (Sam Rockwell). With that premise, McDonough weaves in a series of seemingly unconnected vignettes about people who kill with remorse, a critique of Tarantino inspired dialogue and violence narratives, and the deep-seated shallowness of Hollywood people. With these disparate elements, McDonough has crafted 80% of a good movie.
While purposefully not as narrowly focused as “In Bruges”, “Seven Psychopaths” does have the same type of terrifying and ridiculous characters as the earlier film. Sam Rockwell’s professional dognapper has a kind of childlike lack of understanding of the world that is slowly revealed to be the flip side of a nearly overwhelming nihilism that Rockwell conveys with a chilling glee. Christopher Walken is better than he has been in years as a Quaker whose lifelong beliefs are starting to crumble as he enters the twilight of his life. And Woody Harrelson as the vicious mob boss and loving dog owner that Rockwell crosses is a spiteful and twitchy sight to behold. Colin Farrell’s protagonist is somewhat underwritten by McDonough, but he was right to trust Farrell’s natural arrogance to fill in the blank spots. McDonough’s character work is as strong as always but it’s so much better than his storytelling that it breaks the film.
For most of the first hour, the film sets up a twisty crime story and a parallel narrative taking place within Farrell’s screenplay. The crime stuff, full of tough talking hit men and low grade hustling is generic to the point of parody, missing the underlying soul and bite that defines Tarantino and Christopher McQuarrie. Grubby crooks snarling at each other grows tiresome without any context. The meta-textual stuff is more interesting, especially a segment with Tom Waits as a killer of serial killers who loses his taste for righteous murder. This is far more interesting than the main plot, but again it’s so interesting it makes the rest of the film look drab by comparison. McDonough and cinematographer Ben Davis (“Layer Cake”) make the screenplay sequences so much more visually appealing than the blander driving and talking in Los Angeles sequences that it undercuts McDonough’s repeatedly stated distaste for Hollywood ultra-violence. This only comes through in a third act gun fight that plays out like a piss take on ‘90s Bruckheimer action movies. One of the best things about “In Bruges” and McDonough’s playwriting is his balancing of disparate tones which makes his failure to do so with this film especially shocking.
“Seven Psychopaths” feels like reading an essay by a brilliant writer about why he didn’t write about the subject he was assigned. It’s understandable that McDonough didn’t want to become that hitman guy after writing one of the best hitman movies ever but making a movie about how stupid hitman movies are is a bad way to go about it, especially if all the bile isn’t cut with some heart. Or if the story is sacrificed to show everyone how smart the writer is. If you’re going to be misanthropic, you’ve got to be more entertaining than this.
“Seven Psychopaths” can be purchased on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org