[This is a re-post of my review from the Toronto International Film Festival. Seven Psychopaths opens today.]
A way to work through writer’s block is to write about the writer’s block. At least you’re writing, and you may get something more creative than if you had carefully mapped out your path. I’m not sure if writer-director Martin McDonagh suffered a case of writer’s block on his way to creating Seven Psychopaths, but the end result is brash, brilliant, wickedly fun, and the best film about screenwriting since Adaptation. Psychopaths is viciously funny, delightfully clever, and meta without being cloyingly self-conscious. McDonagh’s machine-gun script races with energy fueled by wild performances from stars Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, and Christopher Walken. The movie doesn’t simply break through writer’s block; Seven Psychopaths gleefully blows the block to hell.
Martin (Farrell) is a screenwriter has a new screenplay called “Seven Psychopaths” but he’s only got the title, and needs to find the eponymous characters. He’s encouraged by his friend Billy (Rockwell), an actor/dog-kidnapper who kidnaps local dogs with his friend Hans (Walken). Billy and Hans end up kidnapping the wrong pooch when they heist Bonnie, a shih tzu owned by psychopathic gangster Charlie (Woody Harrleson). Martin, Billy, and Hans go on the run from Charlie and his goons, but the plot is more about its delightful digressions than its through line. Seven Psychopaths constantly detours to short stories about other psychopaths like Zachariah (Tom Waits), a serial killer of serial killers, who now goes around carrying a bunny.
McDonagh’s skillful direction makes a character like Zachariah fit into a madcap world rather than exist as some kind of zany distraction. The entire film is McDonagh announcing his obstacle, charging at it, and screaming at the top of his lungs. One psychopath is a former Viet Kong soldier (Long Nguyen) dressed as a priest and wielding a snub-nose .45 pistol. “I just liked the image,” Martin shrugs, and we know it was probably an idea McDonagh scribbled down at some point, and found a place for it because the entire flick is a mash-up that may seem like a mess of ideas, but they mesh together into a loud and proud statement on the insanity of writing.
But no one likes a preachy, self-important screenwriter (to Robert Redford I will repeat: no one likes a preachy, self-important screenwriter), and Seven Psychopaths never comes off as pedantic in large part to Walken, Farrell, and Rockwell acting as the heart, the head, and the acid tongue of the picture, respectively. There’s not a weak link in the cast, but the lead trio is operating at the top of their game. Walken brings a weary and sad vibe to the picture, but never forgets to bring his trademark strangeness (only Walken could find a fun new way to pronounce the word “hallucinogens”). Farrell once again gets to show off the comic knack he displayed in McDonagh’s previous film, In Bruges, and he’s an amusingly high-strung straight man who can’t break away from his screenplay or his friends. And as for Rockwell, if the Academy ever noticed movies likes Seven Psychopaths, he would be a shoe-in for an acting nomination. His energy explodes off the screen, and his performance as Billy will be ranked among the best in a career of stellar performances.
These performances are essential for the lunacy of McDonagh’s movie. You need actors who can control the comedy, and bring a sense of humanity and stability to a picture that could have easily gone off the rails if the cast didn’t understand what their writer-director was trying to accomplish. McDonagh holds nothing back, and proudly bears his objectives, his genre critiques, and even his shortcomings (one character points out the paper-thin female characters in Martin’s screenplay). The filmmaker has plastered the screen with the competing sides of his creative mind as Martin and Billy represent the Frosted Mini-Wheats of McDonagh’s brain. The adult side wants a movie about psychopaths that isn’t about violence but instead is about reconciliation and peace. Billy shouts “What the fuck?!” and demands a shootout to end all shootouts.
McDonagh never reconciles a straight story about seven psychopaths, and we should all be thankful for that. The movie shows why it makes no sense of have a sane story about a group of insane people, so why not circle back, go through multiple drafts, throw in short stories, and pepper the flick with razor-sharp wit with emotional depth? Why throw up a wall against taking big chances that could blow the audience away even if they might blow up in the filmmaker’s face? Writer’s block is no match for mad genius, and Seven Psychopaths is delightfully mad and surprisingly genius.