It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World: The Hilarious Male Meta Cinema of Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths

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What to do when you're in the desert: the psychopaths Marty (Colin Farrell), Hans (Christopher Walken), and Billy (Sam Rockwell) talk things and stuff.

Over the last few decades, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson have made a career out of playing a wacko on the big screen or two. Therefore it’s hardly surprising that they joined a nice ensemble cast spearheaded by Irishman Colin Farrell for Seven Psychopaths, the second feature by In Bruges director Martin McDonagh.

The British filmmaker’s debut was a strange but ridiculously funny crime flick, in which two hit-men end up in the Belgian city and wait for a call from their boss in London, only that it never seems to come. In the meantime, the two killers spend their time doing more interesting things than sitting around and waiting. Farrell’s Ray in particular gives in to excessive partying and the beautiful Chloe. Then the phone finally rings and a deadly game begins. McDonagh and the Irish actor have teamed up again, and their new one proves to be a worthy challenger for their first collaboration. And what a ride Seven Psychopaths is on many levels. Let’s cut to the chase.

‘God loves us. He just has a funny way of showing it sometimes.’

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a struggling screenwriter in Los Angeles with a soft spot for booze. He has the idea to come up with a script called Seven Psychopaths, only that he doesn’t really have the slightest idea what it’s going to be about other than the epic title. Lacking inspiration, his weirdo friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) wants to help him out with the project. A good thing if your buddy comes to the rescue, you would think – but far from it. His assistance only makes matters worse for the budding scribe. The whole problem is that the wannabe actor and his dognapping business partner Hans (Christopher Walken) steal gangster boss Charlie’s (Woody Harrelson) beloved Shih Tzu of all dogs. Thanks to the two oddballs, Marty now suddenly becomes mixed up in the underworld. From one second to the next, he finds himself involved with a number of shady characters – and gets a lot more real-life inspiration than he ever bargained for.

‘Then we had this idea. We’d go around the country killing people who go around the country killing people.’

Essentially, Seven Psychopaths is a film about filmmaking. Think Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 or rather Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom meets Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with a touch of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Almost every line in the movie can be read as a comment about Seven Psychopaths itself on the meta level. The feature is self-reflective and, more importantly, self-ironic. In the same way, pretty much every of the weird fellows – Tom Waits among them – that Marty encounters on his strange odyssey to a screenplay wants to add his own take on the story. Martin McDonagh willingly provides them as short episodes incorporated into the film as flashbacks of sort. They don’t only pave the way for cameos by Boardwalk Empire stars Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg among others, but they also reveal in a hilarious hyperbolic fashion how crazy some of the characters actually are and how bad a writer Marty actually is. Without giving away too much, how ridiculous does a Quaker psycho sound? Or Harry Dean Stanton as something resembling Al Bundy’s favorite TV character ‘Psycho Dad’?

‘I don’t have a drinking problem. I just like drinking.’

His fondness of beer and liquor might exactly be the reason why Marty ends up in such a mess. The struggling screenwriter is really something of a starring role for Colin Farrell, as the part could as well be about the actor himself. Many moons ago, the Irish thesp was a fellow drunkard himself. A recovered alcoholic nowadays, he has also been on record as saying that he can’t remember an awful lot of things from his past. It’s a bit ironic that he became the leading man of a film called Total Recall then, but perfect for Seven Psychopaths. In truth, he is actually the tamest of all the madmen surrounding him by far. Marty doesn’t belong with the Billys, the Hanses, and the Charlies of the world, and that he becomes involved with them has more to do with sheer bad luck than anything else. ‘You’re the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting,’ Walken’s dognapper tells him at one point, and then goes on to ask him rhetorically, ‘It gets a little tiresome after a while, don’t you think?’ Then again, it’s the maniacs who allow him to finally get his screenplay going, because Marty’s own ideas are actually less than stellar. He was desperately looking for some sort of inspiration, and this is exactly what he got. Be careful what you wish for, kids.

‘Gandhi was wrong, but no-one’s had the balls to say it.’

Make no mistake, all of the psychopaths are a bunch of foulmouthed bastards. Charlie sometimes feels as if Harrelson was revisiting his part in Natural Born Killers, just with a bunch of self-irony. He has definitely come a long way since playing a naive barkeeper in Cheers and a wannabe streetball star in White Men Can’t Jump. As versatile an actor as Chris Walken is, he has always been more comfortable – or at least more respected – in roles in which he comes across as either a cold-blooded son of a bitch or a raving madman. But none of the many weirdos ín Seven Psychopaths is as wisecracking as Sam Rockwell. His over-the-top performance as a schizo is really something to behold. In Duncan Jones’s Moon, he visited the lunar sphere, and in Seven Psychopaths he demonstrates how much of a luna(r)tic he can actually be. Sam Rockwell really steals the show. Most of the time, his Billy is totally over the moon, indeed – just not in a good sense for the other characters in the film. Which is not to say that he doesn’t provide his fair share of bursts of laughter, but more so for the audience than for the people around him.

‘Your women characters are awful.’

Hans utters this remark about Marty’s screenplay, but it could as well be about Seven Psychopaths itself. The film basically characterizes itself here. The females don’t really play a role in that universe, which is a bit of a shame. Olga Kurylenko, for her part, has certainly proven to be a more than capable leading lady when given the chance to shine, as in The Ring Finger or The Assassin Next Door. That being said, her few minutes on screen time feel a little wasted here. The producers probably just wanted to cash in on her name and the ‘Bond girl’ tag that usually accompanies it. The same goes for Abbie Cornish, who has proven able to hold her own alongside prominent acting partners as well. Advertising the two of them as part of the seven nutjobs that lend the film its title is somewhat misleading. Their roles are little more than cameos. ‘This is a man’s world’ – and the males dominate the scene, while the females are mostly reduced to mere eye candy. Or, as Farrell’s Marty so bluntly puts it, ‘What can I say? It’s a hard world for women.’ Then again, this is a matter of Seven Psychopaths being self-reflexive and playing with the clichés again. The female characters in the movie itself are just as weak and sketchy as those in the film-within-a-film, courtesy of Marty.

‘What, are we making French movies now?’

Billy asks his friends if they are turning the Seven Psychopaths script into one of these artsy French flicks with tons of dialog and little action. Of course they’re not, or at least that’s what they think. Martin McDonagh’s second feature is an independent film. While it contains its fair share of graphic sequences to deserve its R-rating including a wonderfully bizarre and excessive final stand-off in the desert, the majority of Seven Psychopaths actually consists of hilarious dialog. Marty and his friends, if you can call them that, throw their ideas back and forth, and that’s where a lot of the violence comes from, at least initially. Even those gory flashbacks, however, are mere fantasies at first, or so it seems. Farrell’s character is of course totally aware that he’s dealing with a bunch of criminals, but to him they appear more like petty thieves than anything else. When he finally has a hunch of what they’re all about, it’s a matter of ‘too little, too late.’ Billy’s question about the French flicks shows that McDonagh’s new project doesn’t take itself all too seriously. It basically describes the film in a nutshell. Seven Psychopaths is as meta as it gets, and damn funny at that. Its sardonic humor alone might make it one of the movies of the year.

Seen at Filmkunst 66 in Berlin, Germany, on 19 September 2012.