If Martin McDonagh has sold out, he certainly has done it with style. The Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker has gone Hollywood with Seven Psychopaths, an ultra-violent (and ultra-funny) deconstruction of the fast-talking, self-knowing crime capers that came into fashion with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. In some ways, Psychopaths plays like a gat-packing cousin to Wes Craven’s Scream, rolling its eyes at genre clichés while proving that, when done well, they still have plenty of juice left in them.
Everything you need to know about Psychopaths is laid out in its opening scene. A pair of mobbed-up hitmen (Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) stand in the California sun with the Hollywood sign at their backs, arguing about the mechanics of real-life gangland violence versus its fictionalized counterpart. Like many of the film’s disagreements, this one ends in bloodshed when a masked killer strolls up behind them and shoots them both in the head.
That would be Psychopath #1, aka the Jack of Diamonds, a serial killer who preys on Los Angeles mobsters. His identity will remain a secret for a while, but he soon comes to the attention of Marty (Colin Farrell), a wannabe screenwriter who boozes too much and writes too little. Marty is working on the Great American Screenplay, but all he has so far is a title. Any idea what that title might be? If you guessed Seven Psychopaths, then you see where all this is going. But Marty doesn’t want to write another movie about guys with guns—he wants his story to be about love, hence the character list that includes the Quaker Psychopath and the Buddhist Psychopath.
As creative types go, Marty isn’t one. He’s better at looking the part of a Hollywood screenwriter than actually playing it. He’s got the trendy haircut and the metrosexual wardrobe, but he can’t write a story to save his life. And, unfortunately for him, his best friend is Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell, in a role that very intentionally riffs on Taxi Driver’s main character), a certifiably loony but oddly endearing aspiring actor whose primary source of income is a dognapping racket he runs with Hans (Christopher Walken—enough said). Billy knows a thing or two about psychopaths and he wants to help Marty write his screenplay, going as far as placing an ad in a local paper asking violently insane readers to get in touch. When Billy and Hans kidnap the wrong dog, they come into the crosshairs of Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a local mobster who is also—you guessed it—a raging psychopath.
If writer’s block and an ill-advised dognapping sound like shaky framework for a feature, don’t worry—McDonagh has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. In a weird way, Psychopaths is almost an anthology film; Marty’s story acts as the connective tissue stringing together numerous vignettes that might serve as building blocks for his screenplay. In one mini-movie, Harry Dean Stanton is a Quaker seeking to avenge the murder of his daughter; in another, Long Nguyen plays a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who travels to America to kill the soldiers responsible for the death of his family in the infamous My Lai massacre.
Everything folds in on itself in the meta mayhem of the third act, when Billy hijacks Seven Psychopaths—both Marty’s screenplay, and the movie itself—and constructs a finale of orgiastic violence that hilariously indulges action movie clichés.
Whether McDonagh successfully comments on those genre traps or falls into them is sometimes up for debate, most notably when it comes to the film’s treatment of female characters. There’s a lot of talk about how women in postmodern crime flicks just show up as plot points or cannon fodder, and ultimately that’s exactly the fate that befalls most of the women in Psychopaths. It’s never mean-spirited or misogynistic, just a little disappointing, especially considering the potential of at least a couple of the film’s leading ladies, like Linda Bright Clay as Hans’ beloved wife and Amanda Mason Warren as perhaps the movie’s deadliest psychopath.
But that’s a relatively minor complaint for a film that entertains as consistently and uproariously as Seven Psychopaths. And while it’s one of 2012’s funniest and smartest comedies, it’s hard to imagine it hitting the mark with mainstream audiences. Viewers lured in by the A-list cast and fluffy trailer might find the throat-slittings, exploding heads, and hacksaw decapitations (okay, there’s only one of those) a little hard to take, even though the violence is so cartoonish that it usually provokes laughter instead of revulsion.
At first glance, Seven Psychopaths might seem like it’s a few years behind the curve—after all, even Tarantino seems to have moved on. But, as Scream did 16 years ago, it plays at much more than simply poking fun at a waning film trend; it reinvents it and makes it feel new again.