Seven Psychopaths is a great, nasty time at the movies

Oct 11, 2012 at 4:00 am
Woody Harrelson in Seven Psychopaths.
Woody Harrelson in Seven Psychopaths.

Perhaps you've lost faith in movies about amusingly digressive criminals. Maybe you believe it's no longer possible to be pleasurably jolted by inventive swearing, from-no-place head shots, and post-everything structural flourishes. Certainly you have no reason to expect blood-splattered poetry or throat-clearing laughter from yet another movie in which Los Angeles criminals set out to the desert for showdowns and the usual exploding cars. That's all the more reason to savor Seven Psychopaths, the movie in which Martin McDonagh the scabrous playwright and Martin McDonagh the high-end junk filmmaker at last craft a doozy both can brag about to their mates.

That's "mates" in the sense of laddish buddies, as that's who the movie is about, and much of whom it is for. McDonagh contrives to have his hero, an Irish screenwriter with the "get it?" name Marty (Colin Farrell), soundly dressed down for his inability to write women who aren't just there to be murdered to spur the plot. That complaint is certainly true of Seven Psychopaths, and his joking about it is an old rogue's trick: Admitting to rakish behavior before someone else can make a stink about it purchases leniency for future offenses.

So, yes, this is boys' stuff. A screenwriter and his somewhat-touched actor bud (Sam Rockwell, in stoned–Dana Carvey mode) shake LA to find seven stories from seven psychopaths to fill out a screenplay Marty has named — just guess — but hasn't written. A dog-napping Christopher Walken gets in bad with raging gangster Woody Harrelson and eventually does the one last great thing you can't believe no other movie has ever thought to have Walken do: drop peyote at Joshua Tree. (Tip for your office's Walken impersonator: He calls the drugs "howl-loose-sen-ah-gens.") Tom Waits shows up, first as a sight gag and then as a menacing monologuist, his voice box grinding like the gears of a '72 Imperial. There are flashbacks to absurd crime sprees, fabulist tales of murderers who might or might not make the in-film screenplay, a serial killer on the loose, and more sawn-open corpses than in a good Fangoria.

And there's an air of pub-culture bad-boy-ism about it all, as McDonagh, for the first time setting his madmen in America, refuses to heed the local niceties about race or gayness. Walken's complex bastard even half-apologizes for throwing around "fag" as a catchall insult for men who aren't movie-style manly, but, like the apologia about the female characters' tendency to get popped, this feels less like an effort to satirize douchiness than one to suggest that we just roll along with it.

But as boys' stuff goes, this is the best of it, even in the film's less-daring first half, which plays as a high-stakes crime film whose central incident — the napping of Harrelson's dog — is flagrantly meaningless. It's dark, splattery fun, and then sometimes it's suddenly just dark and splattery. At its best, McDonagh — whose directing is finally approaching his writing — pushes us into the most perverse of responses. I've never before heard an audience applaud a throat-slitting suicide.

Just as that story seems to be reaching its climax, though, McDonagh lunges for something more. Marty, who has often expressed a desire not to write violent piffle about killers, sees where everything is going, both with his fictional script and with the real movie he's caught up in. He vows to come up with a new ending that suits his burgeoning pacifism. From there, he and two of the movie's other top-shelf male leads flee LA and attempt to avoid the ending we all know a movie like Seven Psychopaths must have. In the desert the film opens up, becoming thoughtful, expansive, and more funny than ever, something like Pirandello or Daffy Duck's Duck Amuck but without ever smashing fully into addressing-the-author meta-fiction. Then there's the biggest surprise of all: McDonagh still manages to pull off an ending that should satisfy fans of the first half's gory comedy, fans of the second's desert bull session, and fans of those toothsome, never-quite-reputable plays that brought McDonagh to our attention in the first place. It even satisfies the impossible screen-writing goals Farrell's Marty aspires to early in the film: violent, pacifist and somehow life-affirming.

Remember the shitty crime comedies every Hollywood brat tried to make after Pulp Fiction? It took an Irish playwright to get it right. See it with an audience.