Back in 2008, In Bruges signaled the arrival of a new auteur on the cinematic landscape: Irish playwright and filmmaker (and Oscar-winner for the short Six Shooter) Martin McDonagh immediately announced himself within the ranks of the Coen brothers or David Mamet with his feature debut, which beautifully straddled the line between darkly comedic and just plain dark.
One of the best things I can say about his sophomore feature, Seven Psychopaths, is that it doesn’t disappoint. From start to finish I had an absolute blast with Psychopaths, which is more outright comedic than McDonagh’s previous feature but still features some jarring spurts of graphic violence. Reinforcing the director’s status as an auteur with a dynamic new cinematic language, I can’t imagine anything topping it as my favorite film of 2012.
Seven Psychopaths is a film about writing, or more specifically writer’s block, perhaps born from the writer-director’s own difficulties generating an idea. He’s got the title: Seven Psychopaths. And he’s got, maybe, one of the psychopaths. Now he just needs six more psychopaths and a story to go along with them. (Incidentally: you’ll hear the word psychopath 30-40 times in this film, and it gets funnier with every repetition.)
“He” is Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell), an alcoholic Irish screenwriter living in L.A. with his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) and struggling with his creativity. He’s got some images in his head – a Mormon out for revenge, a Vietnamese preacher with a revolver – but nothing seems to gel.
Marty’s friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) runs a dog kidnapping business with his partner, Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken). Or “dog borrowing” business: they snatch a pooch and return it when the lost dog flyers turn up, and if the owners want to graciously reward them, well, all the better. I can’t imagine a scheme like this being very lucrative, but there you go.
But Billy and Hans snatch the wrong dog when they grab a Shih Tzu belonging to local gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson); Marty gets tangled in their web as Costello and his goons seek to retrieve the stolen goods. And then there are all the other psychopaths to contend with, like the masked Jack o’ Diamonds killer, or Zachariah (Tom Waits), who shows up on Marty’s doorstep with a rabbit and tells him the most unusual story…
But a rundown of the plot doesn’t do Seven Psychopaths any justice; this is a story within a story, a film within a film, a piece of metafiction that reveals never-ending possibilities and interpretations. Like Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, it’s a fascinating, self-referential look at the creative process centered on the genesis of itself. Unlike Adaptation, it never lets its ideas get in the way of entertainment; this can be relentlessly funny stuff.
The cast is big part of that, right down to the smallest roles, spouting off endlessly-quotable dialogue with every line. Michael Pitt (Funny Games U.S.) and Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) show up for a single scene but leave an indelible impression; ditto Gabourey Sidibe (Precious). Even the supporting actors, including Kevin Corrigan and Željko Ivanek as Costello’s goons, hit all the right notes.
But there’s one actor who steals the show: Rockwell, who has been very good in some very good films but gives a revelatory performance here. As the film’s driving force, the enigmatic Bickle (a nod to Taxi Driver), Rockwell is…indefinably oddball. I love the way McDonagh handles the character, giving him time to work things out before he speaks; we can see the gears cranking away in his head before he calculates the perfect (or so-he-thinks) response.
Complementing Seven Psychopath’s distinctive tone is the cinematography by Ben Davis, which captures locations in and around Hollywood and the outlying Joshua Tree desert with a vaguely dreamlike quality, accentuated by high contrast lighting and exaggerated colors. The film looks and feels quite unlike anything else; as in Drive, a foreign-born director has put a fresh spin on a familiar L.A. setting.
The terrific soundtrack features evocative original music by Carter Burwell (who also scored the director’s In Bruges) complimented by a selection of hits from years past, including Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Poneys’ Different Drum, P.P. Arnold’s The First Cut is the Deepest, and Hank Williams’ Angel of Death.
Note: pay little attention to the trailer, which portrays the film as a generic caper comedy; that classification couldn’t be further from the truth.