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Film review: Seven Psychopaths (15)

Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken star in Seven Pyschopaths

Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken star in Seven Pyschopaths

  • by Alistair Harkness
 

WITH THIS comic caper about sentimental gangsters and canine abduction, Martin McDonagh eloquently passes comment on the Hollywood system.

Seven Psychopaths (15)

Directed by: Martin McDonagh

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

Rating: * * * *

Falling somewhere between the philosophically driven meta mirth-making of Adaptation and the knowing self-referential silliness of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh’s second feature is both an entertainingly indulgent film about filmmaking and an enjoyably loopy action comedy that gets to have its cake, eat it and go back for seconds.

Set in Hollywood and revolving around a successful Irish scriptwriter called “Martin McDonagh” (Marty for short), it follows Marty’s efforts to blitz through his alcohol-induced writer’s block to pen a screenplay for a movie called Seven Psychopaths that, despite the title, won’t betray his newfound desire to write something that’s more profound than a standard action film full of “guys with guns”. Indeed Marty, wonderfully played by Colin Farrell, wants the film to be “life affirming”, but given that he has nothing but the aforementioned title (and an anecdote about a psychotic Quaker out to avenge the death of his daughter), he’s backed himself into a bit of a corner in his insistence on balancing bloodshed with something that is, as he puts it, “more Buddhist”.

This is pretty much where the film starts and part of the fun is watching the way in which the real McDonagh attempts to resolve the same problems Marty is facing by transforming the movie into a comment on its own creation. Mercifully the film’s blatant winking at the audience isn’t used to disguise a lack of ideas (it’s not the gangster equivalent of Scream), but as a way of sneaking something into the mayhem that’s genuinely surprising and moving.

Before we get to that, however, McDonagh has plenty of fun pinballing Farrell’s Marty through a Los Angeles populated with a colourful array of nutjobs.

First up is Marty’s best friend, an aspiring actor called Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), whose surname – and potential for psychosis – we learn about as he talks to himself in the mirror in what is clearly a wee homage to his Taxi Driver namesake Travis. In addition to failing auditions by punching out directors, Billy co-runs a dognapping business with Hans (Christopher Walken), a cravat-wearing weirdo whose little venture brings the wrath of local mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson) upon himself, Billy and the unwitting Marty when it transpires that Billy has swiped Charlie’s beloved Shih Tzu.

This might seem like a deliberately on-the-nose plot-kicker for what is essentially a shaggy dog story, but McDonagh uses it to take comic shots at an industry that abhors the sight of animals in peril yet barely blinks when a woman is killed in gratuitous fashion. What’s particularly amusing here is that McDonagh also playfully skewers himself by having Hans scold Marty for writing lousy women characters whose sole function in a film is to die or suffer. It’s a fair point (especially given the fates – both real and imagined – of Olga Kurylenko and Abbie Cornish’s characters in the film). McDonagh, though, can’t quite resist undermining it by refusing to rectify the problem as the movie plays out, ensuring that as a mea culpa it might not work for some.

Nevertheless, it does kind of work as a comment on the constant push-and-pull of a creatively compromised industry in which filmmakers have to pick and chose their battles. In this respect, McDonagh succeeds by visually exorcising every bad action movie instinct for comedy effect (there’s a particularly over-the-top fantasy shoot-out in which the mechanics of using a shotgun to literally make someone’s head explode is debated) and swiftly following through with a quite remarkable finale that manages to show how something that has its roots in violence can actually achieve transcendence and have a big emotional impact.

It’s a neat trick and even though McDonagh offsets it with a gag almost immediately, he seems to have confidence in the fact that the images he’s created are powerful enough to linger.

That it all works so well though is largely down to McDonagh’s ability to combine his ideas with a mastery of tone, a rapid-fire array of one-liners and the wonderfully entertaining performances he gets from his cast. Here Farrell continues to demonstrate real range and proves that he’s essentially a character actor trapped in the body of a movie star by generously playing straight man to the gloriously over-the-top likes of Rockwell, Walken and Harrelson. There’s marvellous support too from Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits as psychos who may or may not have some basis in reality.

True, it does become difficult to keep a tally of just who the titular psychos actually are, but perhaps that’s just McDonagh making one final comment, this time about the secret fear shared by writers the world over: that spending days on end on your own making up characters and forcing them to interact with one another might just drive you a little nuts.

 

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