Following on from the award-winning, critically-acclaimed success story that was In Bruges (2008), Irish writer and director Martin McDonagh is back in business with impressively-cast, tongue-in-cheek existentialist revenge thriller Seven Psychopaths (2012), starring Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken. Screenwriter and part-time alcoholic Marty (Farrell) is struggling to get his screenplay written, and spends his days with oddball friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) who tells him a story about a psychotic killer. Hence, Marty comes up with a title for the story – ‘Seven Psychopaths’.
On the hunt for more tales of murderers, Marty manages to kindle the wrath of LA gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson) when Billy and his equally quirky friend/small time crook Hans (Walken) kidnap the crime boss’ beloved pet Shih Tzu. Essentially a riff on the Hollywood production system, this humorous comedy drama promises much. Thankfully, the surreal and arresting, dark humour that has made McDonagh such a success is still there, along with witty screenplay and a plethora of fantastic, fascinating characters.
The film’s structure divides into chapters, delving into each of the seven pyschos’ stories, ranging from a Vietnamese priest to an enigmatic, masked gunman who leaves a Jack of Diamonds as his calling card. These vignettes are all peppered with a visceral violence which, whilst shocking, always retains a hint of the comical. These individual tales are retold, restructured and ripped apart as events in the film’s actual screenplay blend with the fictional screenplay written by Marty.
Initially, these meta-events are pleasing and work well at breaking down genre clichés and poking fun at mainstream American genre cinema. The most overt of these is a triptych on how the final shoot-out in a crime thriller should operate. However, when all is said and done, these self-reflexive discussions on Hollywood tropes and conventions are essentially prolonged industry in-jokes which, whilst enjoyable, does beg the question – who exactly is Seven Psychopaths aimed at? To his credit (and perhaps to cover his own back), McDonagh makes sure that audiences are aware of the inherent weaknesses of his own story, which all becomes somehow part of the joke.
Whilst Seven Psychopaths certainly does works as a pleasingly ironic take on the moviemaking machine, it fails to captivate completely over the course of its runtime. Watchable as ever, Walken and Rockwell provide two hilarious performances that should keep the audience entertained, but one drawn-out joke is just not enough to keep McDonagh’s overarching, self-reflexive narrative going.
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