With In Bruges in 2008, Martin McDonagh made a dark comedy about hit men that was both extremely funny, bittersweet and practically art all in one. Despite the Tarantino trappings, any comparison with that hopelessly waylaid once-interesting filmmaker proved utterly inappropriate and almost insulting. However, after four long years, McDonagh is back with a film that is stuck with that comparison, one that is now sadly accurate.
The plot, or at least the film’s presentation of it, is complex beyond any real justification. The website IMDB has it as: “A struggling screenwriter inadvertently becomes entangled in the Los Angeles criminal underworld after his oddball friends kidnap a gangster's beloved Shih Tzu.” Add to this the fact that the screenwriter, Marty – read Martin McDonagh - (Colin Farrell) is writing a script called ‘Seven Psychopaths’, for which he has only one psychopath worked out. Of course, as the script takes shape, it starts to resemble the writer’s reality, especially when his oddball friends Billy and Hans (Sam Rockwell and a really rather good Christopher Walken) decide to help him out, inadvertently getting him involved with the genuinely psychopathic Charlie (Woody Harrelson).
It is all a bit of mess, really. Seven Psychopaths is about a writer who is trying to write a script entitled ‘Seven Psychopaths’ and yet he does not want to make a film about men with guns and disposable women and a bleakly immoral worldview. In fact, he wants his script to be life affirming, and at one point decides that his script should have no climatic shoot-out and basically finish discursively, with the main characters sitting in a desert and doing nothing but talking. And yet Seven Psychopaths is another film about men with guns and disposable women and a bleakly immoral worldview. McDonagh fills the film with guns, violence and badly characterised women. Underneath, however, is the impression that he is somehow above these tainted films, if only because he is making a meta-movie that messes with audience expectations. McDonagh is critical, yet he also glories in the very things that he is supposed to be condemning. At one point, Hans criticizes Marty because his female characters are terrible, an in-joke that reflects McDonagh’s own script and the nature of the genre itself. Yet McDonagh never really makes amends by introducing a real, three-dimensional female character. Instead Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko are embarrassingly underused. The film suggests that there should be no shoot-out, and it goes a long way towards keeping its word but, ultimately, there is one and it is a big disappointment. In the end, McDonagh isn’t a pacifist and he isn’t a ‘psychopath’ – he is just a filmmaker who has lost sight of whatever it is that he had wanted to say, hopefully only briefly.
Billy is the character that represents the audience and he is also the only true psychopath in the film. He is the one who makes sure that the shootout happens as if his own expectations are what force the film to include a shootout. Seven Psychopaths is presumably suggesting that it is the audience’s appetite for carnage that results in the proliferation of these horrible films. No blame can be levelled at the door of Martin McDonagh, who after all merely wrote and directed the film. Similarly, the film feels free to criticize its own audience, especially because they have chosen to go and see a film called “Seven Psychopaths”, the audience’s complicity only compounded further by the utterly woeful trailers. However, McDonagh overlooks his own status as a very good writer-director, exactly as Haneke did with Amour. Certain members of the audience were not there to see a film called “Seven Psychopaths”; they were there to see a film by the “writer-director of In Bruges.” The audience, hence, are not necessarily raving adolescents like Billy, but simply fans of someone who previously proved themselves to be a really good filmmaker and playwright.
Seven Psychopaths is not all bad and indeed there are a few scenes that work really well and which clearly served as the impetus for the project during its formation. It is often very funny and Billy’s imagined shoot-out, which plays out with all of the genre’s most tiresome clichés, is a hoot. The return of the Vietnamese should raise a smirk in anyone familiar with In Bruges. However, the few times that the film comes together merely point to the fact that the majority of the film does not work. There is also a feeling that McDonagh is much more out of his depth in LA, with his American characters all largely insufferable, where, with In Bruges, his characters are nearly all likable. The American landscape seems a little too unknowable in the film as if McDonagh is lost in a foreign country.
Seven Psychopaths is a compromised film and it is very difficult not to blame McDonagh entirely. His script is a mess and whatever point he wanted to make, whether he is ultimately criticizing or glorifying this dodgy genre, is lost in the fray. Colin Farrell is miscast, Woody Harrelson needs better lines and Sam Rockwell overplays it – I don’t need to mention the women. The best performances are from Tom Waits and Christopher Walken though both have too little to do. McDonagh is nothing if not ambitious and Seven Psychopaths does suggest an intention, whatever it was. It just needed a bit more thought and maybe a bit more daring. All that remains is to hope that McDonagh, his fingers severely burnt from his laziness here, will return in a few years with his best film yet, something that does remain likely.