It should come as no surprise that writer/director Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to In Bruges is a complex, funny and emotional trek to the heart of darkness. At times twisted, at times touching, Seven Psychopaths is a deliciously deceptive character study brimming with all the shock and awe of the very violent action films it deconstructs. McDonagh continues to create well-rounded characters, and with a cast including: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Tom Waits, they burst off the screen.
Colin Farrell plays Marty, a screenwriter struggling with his latest script, “Seven Psychopaths.” He’s got the title, but he can seem to come up with any psychopaths. Marty’s best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is an out of work actor who makes money by kidnapping dogs with his partner, Hans (Christopher Walken). When Billy and Hans kidnap a Shih Tzu belonging to mob boss Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), Marty is sucked into the criminal underworld and surrounded by psychopaths.
And that’s really only the tip of the iceberg. McDonagh’s script is a multi-faceted treasure trove. His characters, as crazy as some may be, are incredibly dynamic and rich. Psychopaths or not, there’s a wealth of humanity. As we learn more about these characters, the layers of the story increase on an ever-steepening grade, and with the way McDonagh blends humor and pathos, at times you’re not sure whether your ascending or descending, whether the tears in your eyes are because you’ve been laughing so hard or because of a moment of gut-wrenching honesty.
Of course, part of what brings McDonagh’s words to life so vividly is the excellent cast. The depth of McDonagh’s characters gives each actor so much to play with, the humor and the humanity and the horror. Farrell does his best work when he’s working with McDonagh. He’s hilarious as the conflicted screenwriter who wants to make a violent action film about peace and love. Rockwell’s magnetism and charm make Billy’s manic energy and underlying sense of sad, childlike innocence even more endearing. As Hans, often going from hilarious to heart-breaking in a matter of seconds, Walken is disarming. And the chemistry between Farrell, Rockwell and Walken is great. Harrelson’s mob boss is unnervingly tempestuous. Then there’s Tom Waits. Everything is better with Tom Waits. As Zachariah, Waits is one of the most touching and most disturbing psychopaths. It’s all the more fitting that Waits is in the film, as McDonagh’s story has a touch of Waitsian mischief in the way it plays with narrative.
With Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh has crafted an entertaining and brilliantly self-reflexive deconstruction of the action film. As In Bruges pondered the ramifications of violence that many traditional action films never seem to account for, Seven Psychopaths digs even deeper, examining the people who find themselves caught up in these violent situations and what it does to them, and–beyond that–what motivates one to write about such people. Almost every character can bring both a smile to your face and a tear to your eye. Funny. Dark. Disturbing. Full of surprises. Seven Psychopaths is one of the best films of the year.