Sometimes a movie can be too clever for its own good. Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s sophomore directorial effort, Seven Psychopaths, settles snugly into this category. On one level, it’s a black comedy that builds its humor out of the bullet-blasting antics of several criminals and their cohorts, falling in line with any number of films that followed in the long wake of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, including McDonagh’s previous feature, In Bruges. Simultaneously, though, Seven Psychopaths calls attention to its mechanics, playing a game of metanarrative that only begins with the detail of making the lead character an Irish screenwriter named Martin. Repeatedly in the dialogue, McDonagh calls attention to the distance between movie violence and real violence, between posturing and owning up to the impact of actions.
In the film, Martin is stuck in his work on a screenplay he’s titled Seven Psychopaths, a situation he discusses with his friend Billy, played by Sam Rockwell. Billy works with Hans, played by Christopher Walken, on an ongoing scheme to kidnap dogs and then show later to claim the inevitable reward money offered by the owners. Matters get complicated when Billy snatches the beloved Shih Tzu of a local gangster, played with seething gusto by Woody Harrelson. Interspersed with the main plot are glimpses of the stories that Martin plans to incorporate into his film, staged with a vivid fakery. It’s meant to contrast with the supposed grimness and reality of the escalating carnage in which Martin and his friends find themselves, but many of those scenes play out with exactly the sort of sharply cacophonous kinetics (and constant verbal byplay) that itself only happens in the movies. If this was part of McDonagh’s self-commentary, an acknowledgment that there’s no true reality that can be stirred into fiction, there would be interesting layers within layers. Instead, the film seems to operate with a belief in its own profundities of contrast.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t entertaining. It’s brash, energetic and often very funny. Thanks largely to inspired casting that allows the various actors to play to their considerable strengths, especially Walken, whose deadpan, genial oddness is better used here than it has been in years. And McDonagh truly has a gift for dialogue, evoking both the bluntness of David Mamet and the gonzo wit of Tarantino in a manner shorn of the self-consciousness that often hampers their respective work. On the other hand, it’s a shame that McDonagh relies so much on ugly language derogatory of gays, an affectation that doesn’t provide insight into an individual character when it’s casually slipping out of so many mouths onscreen. It’s just another example of the way Seven Psychopaths gets mired in the same lazy material on which it purports to offer withering commentary. McDonagh has an ultimately incompatible goal. He wants to hold his bullets and fire them wildly too.