Pulp Meta-Fiction

Seven Psychopaths is Quentin Tarantino meets Charlie Kaufman.

Sam Rockwell in Seven Psychopaths.
Sam Rockwell in Seven Psychopaths.

Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Blueprint Pictures Limited/The British Film Institute/Film4 © 2011. All rights reserved.

The bracingly weird Seven Psychopaths is the second film written and directed by the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. His first movie, In Bruges, about a pair of squabbling hitmen cooling their heels in that medieval Belgian city, attracted a small but passionate following for its idiosyncratic blend of semi-comic violence and bro-on-bro chitchat.

Like Quentin Tarantino, McDonagh excels at writing sharp, funny dialogue for people (men, usually) who are just passing the time while they wait for something violent and inevitable to happen. But McDonagh has his own distinctive voice and a set of obsessions quite different from Tarantino’s: For one thing, his characters tend to be introspective, yearning types, very different from the deadpan fatalists who populate Tarantino’s world. McDonagh also brings up ethical and spiritual questions it’s hard to imagine, say, Uma Thurman’s avenging bride in Kill Bill taking the time to ponder: Is violence ever really the right answer? What happens to us after we die?

That’s not to say that those questions ever get addressed satisfactorily in Seven Psychopaths. This is a movie that throws a lot of stuff at you (jokes, subplots, philosophical riffs, arterial jets of blood) and leaves you puzzling over what to do with it all. It’s at once a gangster movie, a buddy comedy, and a meta-fictional exploration of the limits of both genres—and if that sounds impossible to pull off, well, McDonagh doesn’t, quite. But the pure sick brio of Seven Psychopaths takes it a long way.

Colin Farrell, who also co-starred in In Bruges, plays an Irish screenwriter named Marty. Yes, he’s a same-name stand-in for the writer, like Nicolas Cage’s Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation. And like that character, Marty is suffering from epic writer’s block on his latest, now wildly overdue script. All he has is a title, one that everyone seems to agree is awesome: Seven Psychopaths. But his inability to progress beyond writing “Psychopath #1” on a legal pad has him depressed and drinking heavily, and his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) is about to send him packing.

Marty’s loose-cannon best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), is desperate to collaborate on the script—his job as an actor is going nowhere, and he’s been making a living by kidnapping dogs, then sending his courteous, ascot-wearing buddy Hans (Christopher Walken) to return them and collect the rewards from their owners. One unlucky day, Billy and Hans kidnap a Shih Tzu that turns out to be the adored pet of a notoriously ruthless crime boss, Charlie (Woody Harrelson). When Billy refuses to return the dog (pointing out that “that would defeat the purpose of kidnaping”), Charlie and his henchmen come after the dognapping duo, providing Marty with an all-too-close view of the many varieties of human psychopathology.

This dognapping plot is only one of multiple concurrent stories in Seven Psychopaths, some of them nested inside others. A masked serial killer stalks Los Angeles, leaving a Jack of Diamonds playing card at each murder scene. A dour Quaker (Harry Dean Stanton) figures out how to avenge his daughter’s murder while staying true to his pacifist beliefs. A Vietnamese priest (Long Nguyen) sits in his hotel room in America, plotting revenge for the Vietnam War. What do these stories have to do with one another? Is Marty generating them himself, as his screenplay-in-progress makes its tormented way from brain to pen? And is the increasingly unhinged Sam right when he insists that it can all end only in a no-holds-barred, Hollywood-style macho shootout?

All this narrative nesting and genre-skipping sounds very cerebral on the page, but in practice, Seven Psychopaths is as pleasurably kinetic as can be, full of double-crosses and gunplay and sun-kissed SoCal locations (the last third or so of the movie takes place amid the sci-fi-worthy vegetation of Joshua Tree National Park). There’s a crisp, witty score by Carter Burwell; there’s (too briefly) Tom Waits, telling a tale of murder and lost love while cradling a pet rabbit. Above all, there’s Sam Rockwell, whose manic turn as the gonzo Billy steals the movie even from notorious gonzo-character specialist Woody Harrelson. Walken, as the mysteriously unflappable Hans, does wonderful work in a more minor, low-key mode; when he turns down a proffered drink with the casual demurral “I take peyote,” his comic timing is pure gold. Farrell has less to do as the naive audience proxy Marty, but his permanently quizzical wedge-shaped eyebrows express the audience’s own confusion. There’s not really time during Seven Psychopaths to think through how, or if, all its almost-clever narrative puzzles fit together, and after the movie’s over, it doesn’t quite seem worth worrying about.