The McDonagh family has some serious talent. Both Martin, the writer/director of In Bruges, and his brother John Michael McDonagh, writer/director of The Guard, have produced two of the best dark comedies of the 21st century. Martin in particular feels in many ways like a subtler, more poignant Tarantino, combining morbid violence with ingenious dialogue and meaningful emotion. In light of this, I was looking forward to his second film with great anticipation. It therefore grieves me to say that Seven Psychopaths is, to be frank, an utter disappointment.
Part of this failure comes from how uneven the movie is in its structure. I was totally hooked at the first scene, which brilliantly sets a violent, silly tone for a whacky tale featuring an eclectic ensemble of characters. Unfortunately, this initial giddiness doesn’t last as the film moves into its limp second hour. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that crashes and burns this much in its second half; while the first part of Seven Psychopaths is filed with the usual snappy, witty, kinetic filmmaking that we expect from McDonagh, the latter half completely changes course with meandering dialogue and slow pacing. McDonagh suddenly trades laughs for misplaced drama and eye-rolling preachiness, culminating in a wholly unsatisfying climax.
Like Hugo before it, Seven Psychopaths also suffers from false advertising. It does not, in fact, feature seven psychopaths at all. By my count, I could count at best five (arguably) psychopathic people. It may be unfair to fault a film for how it was marketed, but the title also elicits this expectation from the audience. One might argue that Seven Psychopaths refers to the title of Marty’s script of the same name, but then I still don’t understand where these elusive seven people come into play in the course of the narrative.
For those keeping count, here’s a breakdown of the characters in the image above:
- Angela’s (Olga Kurylenko) story arc ends in the same scene she’s introduced.
- Walken is Hans, Billy’s partner-in-crime, who favors Christian prayer over any sort of violence. He’s far more concerned with the welfare of his wife than anything else. ✓*
- Colin Farrell plays an Irish screenwriter named Marty, perhaps based on Martin McDonagh himself, and serves as the straight man to Sam Rockwell’s zany Billy.
- Billy (Sam Rockwell) is certifiably insane, making one random, dangerous decision after the other. ✓
- Abbie Cornish does absolutely nothing as Marty’s “bitchy” girlfriend Kaya, so-called simply because she recognizes Billy as a psychopath and disapproves of Marty’s drinking. Her story goes nowhere, and she’s far from psychopathic.
- Tom Waits can justifiably be called a psychopath, but like Angela, his story stretches across all of one scene. ✓
- Woody Harrelson is Charlie, the primary antagonist, whose obsession with his dog and erratic violent behavior warrant classification as a psychopath. You can definitely see echoes of Ralph Fiennes’s Harry from In Bruges in his mannerisms and quirks. ✓
*This is debatable. If he counts, so does his wife; but I’ll leave that for you to decide if you do see the film.
The biggest downfall of the film is its self-awareness. Every error or inconsistency is commented on by the characters themselves as they help Marty work through his screenplay. Marty’s script gives short-shrift to its female characters? So does McDonagh. Marty’s climax feels completely anticlimactic in every possible way? So does McDonagh’s. Marty can’t come up with seven characters for his movie? Neither can McDonagh. Self-aware humor is a fine tool to use to drive a film, but simply pointing out why your movie doesn’t work isn’t funny and it only serves to remind us why the film isn’t very good.
Seven Psychopaths does have its merits, of course. The humor is very much spot-on, at least in its superior first half. Visual gags and surprise violence, much in the same vein as Quentin Tarantino, give the movie that exhilarating roller-coaster feel that makes black comedy work so well. And while some of the dialogue feels quirky for the sake of being quirky, it is for the most part extraordinarily well-written.
And of course, the entire ensemble cast does as well as they can with the material they’re given; Sam Rockwell gets the chance to be as zany as possible, Harrelson is amusing as the sensitive, angry villain, and Farrell does well at playing “normal,” reacting to each subsequently absurd scenario with the appropriate expressions shock and horror. Walken in particular is incredible as Hans, the only character with any discernibly emotional or logical motivations in the entire film. Walken’s total commitment to bringing Hans to life makes him the standout player in Seven Psychopaths.
Having said that, I probably won’t ever see all of Seven Psychopaths again. Save for Christopher Walken’s absolutely stellar performance and Sam Rockwell’s delightful insanity, the film just falls apart too quickly and suffers from too many poor narrative choices to recommend. If you’re a diehard fan of Martin McDonagh, you may find something to like here – for everyone else, you’re better off just watching In Bruges for the hundredth time.
Let’s hope his next effort shows a more concerted return to form.
Verdict: Movie Meh
A Note on Tom Waits – To understand what is fundamentally wrong with Seven Psychopaths, we can look at the character of Zachariah (Tom Waits). Instead of showing us anything about his character outside of the fact that he is carrying a bunny, the film outright tells us via shoehorned exposition that he’s a psychopath. He then proceeds to talk about his past, using unnecessarily violent flashbacks (two people actually left the theater in disgust) to confirm McDonagh’s assertion that he is crazy. And then he leaves.
That is his entire role.
He does have a final post-credits scene, but it feel tacked-on, predictable, and isn’t particularly funny or interesting in any way. Anything communicated there could have been achieved with some simple on-screen text, or left out entirely; it, like the character himself, adds nothing to the movie whatsoever.
A Note on In Bruges – There is a subtle, clever reference toward the beginning of the film to In Bruges. See if you can spot it – it happens in a conversation between Billy and Marty when they are discussing his script.
A Note on Missing Psychopaths – The hugely important missing ingredient of the other 2 or 3 psychopaths is accentuated as titles for each character appear randomly on the screen in the first half of the film, labeling them as Psychopath #1, #2, etc. These visual cues feel entirely incongruent and inconsistent with one another, ultimately confusing the audience more than they help.