Seven Psychopaths

Duncan Wu is amused by a frenzied bagatelle full of violence, political incorrectness and comic fury, signifying…itself, mostly

December 6, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

Directed by Martin McDonagh

Starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson

Released in the UK on 5 December

Seven Psychopaths opens in the UK on 5 December, which makes it a sort of Christmas present to the nation from Film4 and the British Film Institute, the movie’s funders. What sort of yuletide cheer does it offer? Well, imagine a grown man - Sam Rockwell at his looniest - waving a.44 Magnum at a shih-tzu, that fluffiest and least offensive of dogs, while shouting at Woody Harrelson: “Your gay dog’s gay head’s gonna fucking explode!” There then follows a rambling conversation about whether heads explode when shot, concluding that they do not, other than when they contain explosives.

Such ludic wit might be claimed as typical of Seven Psychopaths if the film had any intention of establishing a normal relationship with its audience - which it doesn’t. The plot, in so far as that helps, concerns an Irish screenwriter in Los Angeles called Marty (Colin Farrell), whose best friend, Billy Bickle (Rockwell), is an out-of-work actor. Billy is also a part-time dog kidnapper who, with the help of another psychopath, Hans (Christopher Walken), claims the reward after returning pooches to distressed owners. Their unbidden appropriation of Bonny, the beloved shih-tzu of mafia boss Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson) - see twitter.com/psychocostello - precipitates torture, mayhem and a string of gratuitous slayings.

The film also contains a lengthy meditation on storytelling in the middle of the Californian desert, as well as encounters with a Quaker who stalks a murderer, a Buddhist determined to blow up as many Americans as possible, a hooker who learned Vietnamese at Yale University, and a former psycho killer, Zachariah (Tom Waits), who goes everywhere with his pet rabbit and screams at one point: “You didn’t think I was what? Serious? You think I’m not serious just because I carry a rabbit around?”

“Peace is for queers. And now you’re gonna die.” Another great line, another swipe at homosexuals - although, without going so far as to endorse the sentiment, it occurs to me that “peace is for queers” is one of those phrases that might be construed as an inviolable rule for storytellers, queer or not. All of which is symptomatic of the film’s compulsion to comment, however tangentially, on its maker’s craft.

In fact, Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), writer and director of Seven Psychopaths, has embedded self-referentiality in the film’s DNA by naming his principal character after himself and awarding him the task of scripting a film within a film titled Seven Psychopaths. It is thus no surprise when we learn that Zachariah is a psychopath who has set himself the ambition of ridding the world of other psychopaths - or, as he puts it: “We’d go round the country killing people who go round the country killing people. Serial killer killers, you might say.” As that suggests, the compulsion to self-refer infects even the characters’ rhetoric - and when Hans, one of the hallowed seven, remarks, “I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a psychopath”, we know he is being ironic, as when, later on, he persuades Marty that “psychopaths get kinda tiresome after a while”.

“I don’t want it to be one more film about guys with guns in their hands,” Marty says at one point, as if cueing the film’s reviewers - which alerts me to the peculiar fact that Seven Psychopaths is both self-referential and, to a limited extent, self-reviewing. Billy takes the liberty of pointing out, around halfway through, a flaw in the dramaturgy - that its female characters are paper-thin and, having been used as mobile sex toys, are then shot, usually at close range. As he observes: “You can’t let animals get shot in this movie. Just the women.” (The official website disingenuously nominates two of these harmless ladies as psychopaths.)

Not content with that, this hyperactive film enjoys the game of referring to things beyond itself, beginning with LA’s famed “Hollywood” sign in its opening shot. It notches up many more echoes of real and imagined worlds, as if trying to distinguish between the two. To name a few: the first scene, between two mobsters, is acted by Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg, both of whom play mobsters in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire; Billy shares his surname with Travis Bickle, protagonist of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and one of the most eminent psychopaths in cinema history; Hans takes his surname from the Polish film director Krzysztof Kieslowski; their would-be nemesis, Charlie, shares a surname with Lou Costello, from whose anarchic spirit Seven Psychopaths seldom wanders far; and at one point, Billy claims that Bonny (the dognapped shih-tzu) “is my Patty Hearst, except I ain’t gonna bag it, keep it in a closet, make it rob a bank, no, I’m going to hold on to it, until a decent human being gives me a bunch of money!”

This refuse-heap of allusion is a dangerous lure for anyone foolish enough to take a masturbatory pleasure in construing whatever clues McDonagh drops in the viewer’s path as stepping stones to a higher meaning - although it is worth noting that the entire thing is designed to encourage the notion that “meaning” is enshrined within it. Its characters promise as much: at one point, Hans remarks approvingly of Marty’s script: “I like it. It’s got layers.”

But the point to be made about Seven Psychopaths is that it makes a virtue of its refusal to offer defining observations on the creative impulse or indeed much else. Indeed, it is slippery and evasive enough to be insubstantial. (Assuming it is safe to dismiss the implied claim that McDonagh experienced the events depicted in the film, its credibility on even as basic a subject as the relationship between art and life is questionable.)

If it does possess “layers”, those could only be elements of its narrative construction rather than concepts awaiting the attention of professors of film and media studies. For most of us, its pleasures must reside in its playfulness - in hearing Walken say, “God loves us, I know he does, he just has a funny way of showing it”, or seeing Rockwell ask Farrell: “You wanna go to the bathroom? Clean some of the blood and puke off you?” In other words, it is distinguished by the quality of its cast and the unpredictable, eccentric and essentially light-hearted script with which they wrangle. Walken is especially good in the part of Hans, a man who has remained too long in the dog-napping business.

Seven Psychopaths is that quaint paradox: a film dressed up to look as if it has something to say while preferring to keep its mouth shut. In fact, any of Charlie Kaufman’s films has more to say about the craft of film-writing. In that respect it is an exercise in camp style, declaring, with Hans: “Have some pride in yourself, and don’t tell those scum-sucking motherfuckers nothing!” But the marvellous thing about cinema is that it doesn’t have to theorise - it has only to tell a story in a way that will satisfy its audience, and this one manages that with ease, tying up every last one of its miscellaneous, multifarious loose ends.

As a Christmas present to the nation, Seven Psychopaths may meet with one or two blank stares. Some will find it irritatingly self-admiring, gratuitously violent and politically incorrect in almost every conceivable way, while others will enjoy it for what it is - a bagatelle engineered for the purpose of playing cat and mouse with its audience, or, more correctly, for the purpose of encouraging us to second-guess the twisted sensibility behind it.

It also has a great soundtrack.

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