Marty (Colin Farrell), a struggling screenwriter, is assisted on his latest work by his unemployed actor friend Billy who also happens to kidnap dogs in his spare time with partner-in-crime Hans. They return the animals to their owners for reward money. Billy inadvertently kidnaps a violent mobster’s beloved pet and that sets our story in motion. That might seem like a convoluted set up, but it’s just barely the tip of the iceberg of this tale. In fact that dog napping Shih Tzu storyline featured in the trailer and posters is but one aspect of a rapidly shifting plot that includes a writer’s desperate attempt to finish his screenplay, a “Jack of Diamonds” killer stalking Los Angeles mobsters, a Quaker out to avenge his daughter’s death and a Vietnamese priest with unresolved anger over the Vietnam war.
Seven Psychopaths features an “oh so hip it hurts” screenplay by Martin McDonagh. Its carefree tone plays with genre conventions in a manner that can be funny. However, that liveliness is frequently undone by gut churning violence. It’s really hard to keep laughing when we’re watching a man slice his own neck in unblinking style. To make matters worse this action is repeated when another man performs the same horrific act immediately after. There used to be a time when the camera would avert its gaze at such monstrosities but director Martin McDonagh insists on assaulting the audience. It completely takes us out of the humor of the situation. When Zachariah Rigby (Tom Waits) recounts how he and his girlfriend went around the country killing off other serial killers, the acts are performed in such gruesome detail that the carnage makes Saw or Hostel look like Babette’s Feast by comparison.
Where Seven Psychopaths shines is in the script. Its tale delights in being absurd. Woody Harrelson is notable as Charlie Costello. He’s a violent mobster who is quite comfortable with shooting a man at point blank range in the face. Yet he worships his prized Shih Tzu above all human life. Woody Harrelson is quite possibly the MVP of the picture. A majority of the best moments involve him, no small feat with a talented cast benefited by notorious scene stealers Christopher Walker as Hans and Sam Rockwell as Billy. Charlie’s interrogation of Hans’ wife at the hospital (played with steely resolve by Linda Bright Clay) is a mesmerizing exchange.
Seven Psychopaths satirizes mob movie conventions with rapid fire dialogue. The script is highlighted by a meandering, disjointed narrative. Even the very title is a misnomer because there are really only six psychopaths. One (Billy) gets counted twice. Plus they’re not the same lunatics represented on the poster. For example, where is the Vietnamese priest? Granted these are trivialities. It’s the odd mix of violence and humor that is truly unsettling. The film will hold considerably more appeal for viewers with strong stomachs that can find humor in extreme ultra violence. Yet for all its faults, Seven Psychopaths is simply too well acted and audacious to simply dismiss. There are definitely some amusing moments amongst the repartee and memorable characters. The quick exchanges have the actors rarely pausing to even take a breath. Christopher Walken amps up his eccentric delivery to comical effect where he becomes a parody of himself (in a good way). Sam Rockwell likewise chews the scenery, but it’s Woody Harrelson that truly takes the cake. When it’s finished, I’m not sure all the chaos really fits together in a coherent puzzle, but with a movie like this, I guess that’s not really the point.