Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” – Cute and hilarious.

Poster for "Seven Psychopaths"

I know what you’re thinking. This film is about a culturally satisfying number of psychopaths. It’s from Martin McDonagh, the bloody-minded, utterly un-PC writer/director of In Bruges (as well as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which is, to this day, the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen on a stage). How can it possibly be “cute”? Well I’ll tell you, dear reader. The main character is a drunken Irish screenwriter named Martin (Colin Farrell), who is attempting to write a screenplay for a film called Seven Psychopaths. The very same film we’re presently watching, in fact. The film cuts back and forth between his beautifully imaginative psychopathic origin vignettes and the “real world”, along with occasional revelations that some of his psychopaths are in the actual story of the film we’re watching. Maybe. It’s wonderfully unclear.

Seven Psychopaths seizes on the fundamental truth of storytelling that no idea is completely original. You may think it came from a serendipitous muse that squirted it into your brain from the collective unconscious, but we are the inexorable products of our surroundings, our culture, and most importantly, our stories. Stories we’ve been told, stories we’ve forgotten, and stories we’ve subsequently retold and passed off as our own work. This is a bloody-minded Adaptation. Hugo without the whimsy. It is sickeningly self-aware, and could have felt like a lesser parody of either of those films if not for such a perfect ensemble cast.

Sam Rockwell plays Billy Bickle, professional dognapper. When Bickle’s partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), accidentally steals a Shih Tzu owned by mobster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), the two are forced to scramble to stay alive as Costello ruthlessly seeks out his purloined puppy. While Walken and Harrelson are perfectly cast, the absolute standout is Sam Rockwell, who plays the rather obviously-named Bickle as a relentlessly delightful sociopath. His every interaction with Farrell is pitch-perfect, even as he interrupts each fresh outrage to question whether his screenwriting friend might have a drinking problem. The film also features a solid supporting ensemble, including Zeljko Ivanek and Kevin Corrigan, as well as an outstanding turn by Tom Waits, who manages to turn the simple act of petting a bunny into something wondrously terrifying.

You might notice I haven’t mentioned any ladies yet, and there are several in the film. Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, and Gabourey Sidibe each have small parts, and they do decent work with what little they’re given. Newcomer Linda Bright Clay is especially strong as Hans’ wife. But this is where the film’s veneer of self-awareness starts to crack a bit. Can a screenplay that’s chock full of crappy, one-note, brutally treated female characters redeem itself by having one of its myriad gentlemen point it out in the third act? My general response would be ‘no’, but Farrell’s hilariously weak defense that “it’s a tough world for women”, and Walken’s wry retort that despite that, most of the ladies he knows “can string a fucking sentence together” completely saved it.

Still from "Seven Psychopaths"

In fact, when the last act of the film drops any pretense of real-world story and has the entire ensemble vigorously debating how the movie should end, it somehow manages to hit every note perfectly. Its self-awareness becomes incredibly endearing, even as it debates precisely what kind of shootout should bookend the story. The film’s most honest moments emerge from this sequence, as Marty questions whether he even wants to write this kind of story anymore. Psychopaths might be a fun idea with which to frame a story, but they do get a bit fucking tiresome when you have to write so many of them.

But whether he wants to keep writing this kind of story or not, McDonagh still seems to be having a great deal of fun with the material. His Irish characters still border on caricature, his racist humor reaches Tarantinoan levels of superfluousness, and his odd fascination with the Vietnamese continues. His creations are born in a world of cartoonish excess, and die with as much frenetic and hilarious bloodlust as the script can muster – unless of course he changes his mind before the film ends. But in a film like Seven Psychopaths, mind-changing is an integral part of the narrative. The film conceives of a great many brilliant characters, then dispenses with any necessity to actually put them into the story. Some might regard this as a cheat, but I simply saw it as a laundry list of possibilities. When Martin McDonagh plays in his sandbox, this is the unholy ensemble that emerges. And as hilariously overdone as it might be, it still felt as fresh and effective as ever.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

2008 Glennies, Part 5: Best Picture (Part 1 of 2)

Top 10 Films of the Year:

#11: In Bruges

I’d call this one an honorable mention, but I’ve just got too much to say about it. This film was advertised as a dark comedy/action film, but it ended up being so much more… Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play a pair of hitmen who head for Bruges (in Belgium) to lie low after a hit that goes terribly wrong… The film plays simultaneously like a fairy tale and a brooding drama, as the two men struggle to cope with the terrible thing that they’ve done (which is saying something, for men in their line of work). The film is hilarious and memorable, and Ralph Fiennes, who unfortunately got no love in my Best Supporting Actor list, gave a brilliant performance as the frustrated boss man.

#10: WALL-E

This film provoked an uproar when it came out… Some people were saying it was the most didactic environmentalist wankfest since Captain Planet, others were decrying its economics, and still others were questioning the love story and calling the titular robot a date-rapist. As amusing as all of this is, it must be said that the first half hour of this film, in which there is almost no dialogue, is one of the finest pieces of animation and storytelling I have ever seen. Whatever the film has to say, it is an admirable accomplishment, and tells a delightful robot love story.

#9: Kung Fu Panda

Jack Black plays a panda who knows kung fu.

Jack Black…plays a panda…who knows kung fu. This movie looked terrrrrrrrrrrible when I first saw the ads, but I cannot tell you how much fun I had watching this film. From Dreamworks Animation, this film proved conclusively that Pixar has a monopoly on neither brilliant animation nor brilliant storytelling. You would think that a fight scene between a bear and a tiger and…a snake?…couldn’t possibly be compelling, but the action of this film is brilliantly “filmed” and choreographed. The film works equally well as an action film as it does as a comedy, and greatly exceeded my expectations.

#8: Milk

Critics were heaping praise on this movie from the moment it came out (93% on Rotten Tomatoes), and I suspected, even as I was watching it, that the film’s pro-gay rights message appealed to their left-wing sensibilities, and as such, they were overlooking some of the film’s flaws. After seeing the film, I still believe this is true to some degree, but this film deserves a great deal of the praise it’s been getting. Sean Penn gives a remarkable performance (see “Part 4: Best Actor”), as do supporting actors James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin, and Diego Luna. If you have any interest in political and crowd tactics, this movie will enthrall you as it did me. They choreograph a march to city hall, carefully time disconnecting overhead cables from streetcars so they will block traffic on cross-streets, and send Milk to rush to city hall in a car so he can step out on the front steps and “calm everyone down” once they arrive. This was one particularly compelling scene of political theatre, and this film adeptly depicts a great deal of it. The film has its weak points, particularly when it comes to depicting Milk’s love life, but the performances more than made up for it.

It also doesn’t bury the lead with regard to Milk’s eventual assassination (it is announced in the first 30 seconds of the film), and yet the tone of the film manages to remain hopeful and cheery to the very end. Gus Van Sant has transcended the usual conventions of a biopic, and the resulting film is well worth checking out.

#7: Doubt

If you want a film that deals with priests molesting altar boys… Look elsewhere. This film, based on John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer prize-winning play of the same name, is all about the nature of certainty, faith, and doubt. It is driven entirely by the four central performances (who are the only characters in the play) – a stern and unforgiving Mother Superior (Meryl Streep), a young, upbeat, and impressionable nun (Amy Adams), a progressive, but suspicious priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and a concerned, but shocking mother (Viola Davis). The film’s roots as a play are evident here; the scenes are long (sometimes 15-20 minutes), and driven entirely by dialogue. It is when Shanley attempts to add film conventions (such as flashbacks) that the film feels weakest, but this thankfully happens only once or twice. There are so many memorable scenes between these characters, and the film’s final showdown, while not perfect, is memorable and impeccably acted. And the ending, which is far from definitive, worked well for me.

#6: Let the Right One In

This film, from Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, is a brilliantly ominous coming-of-age film about a 12-year-old boy named Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a frequent target of bullies at school, who finds solace in a budding romance with the girl next door – who just happens to be a vampire. The film takes thorough advantage of the bleak and snowy Swedish winter locale, utilizing every possible shade of gloomy white you can imagine, albeit speckled with blood. The relationship between the two kids works amazingly well, owing significantly to Lina Leandersson’s performance as the seemingly 12-year-old vampire girl Eli. The bullying subplot culminates what may be one of the most tense and brilliantly shot horror sequences I’ve ever seen, making very creative use of an underwater camera. The film is creepy, intense, and haunting. See it before they remake it with Americans.