Josh Miller: Martin McDonagh first made a name for himself on the stage, penning plays like 2003’s Tony-nominated The Pillowman, before diving into cinema — which he did in 2006, with the Oscar-winning short film Six Shooter. His first feature film brought him right back to the Oscars when CHUD favorite In Bruges was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Then he whipped out another Tony-nominated play, 2010’s A Behanding in Spokane. It has been a rather upward and esteemed journey for the Irishman. Now McDonagh is back with a highly anticipated new film (highly anticipated around these parts at least). And not just any film. A film that stars a veritable wet-dream of great characters actors. Sam Rockwell. Woody Harrelson. Tom fucking Waits. And Christopher Walken playing an actual character again instead of a parody of himself. For McDonagh fans, expectations were high for Seven Psychopaths, which follows the downward spiral of a screenwriter (Colin Farrell) whose best-friend (Rockwell) gets tangled up in a bad situation after stealing a mobster’s (Harrelson) beloved dog. Well, those expectations were high until everyone saw Seven Psychopaths‘ advertising campaign, which seems to hinge entirely on the tagline, “They won’t take any Shih Tzu,” and makes the film look like a dorky Barry Sonnenfeld adaption of a lesser Elmore Leonard novel. Yet, this is Martin McDonagh. Shouldn’t we all still assume the film is good?
That’s what we’re here to find out. Tim, you just saw the film. First impressions?
Tim Kelly: Still reeling. You mention that advertising campaign. Well, this isn’t the film we’ve been led to believe it is. For those wanting a straight-forward narrative McDonagh affords you enough reasoning to interpret as such. But he’s unleashed a film so steeped in meta subtext that you’re left in a daze as the film keeps folding in on itself and bending and twisting to McDonagh’s whims. What we’re left with is a meditation on the creative process and violence’s influence. This is a movie that will lose some of its audience before the credits, but it rewards paying attention as McDonagh toys with his winding and complicated story. Seven Psychopaths is at times distracted, often hilarious, always entertaining and, when all is said and done, it might even be brilliant.
Josh: “Might” is the imperative word there.
The film that Seven Psychopaths most reminded me of while watching it was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Both are overly smart and impish, dialogue heavy, densely structured tales that parallel Hollywood and crime. But unlike KKBB, for me this movie never really added up to anything. McDonagh flexes his writing muscles hard, and most of the performances are exhilarating, but there is pronounced dimorphism between Seven Psychopaths‘ scene-by-scene quality and its overall quality — filmmaking talent chasing a narrative purpose. Yet I undeniably loved watching it. The experience was not unlike walking past a bakery and for a brief moment getting caught up in a delicious cloud of food smells, only to walk out of the cloud and be left suddenly hungry. And similarly, I also have a strong urge to walk right back into that cloud, despite the knowledge that I’ll still leave it with no food my belly again.
Tim: I want to touch on this notion of dimorphism, because the film’s topsy-turvy nature could lead one to conclude the parts are greater than the sum. But McDonagh’s not concerning himself with narrative coherency here. It’s a tired cliche for a writer to inject himself into his story but I’d argue the writer/director is every bit as successful here as Charlie Kaufman was in Adaptation. The location and subject matter certainly lends itself to Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but what Psychopaths accomplishes is much more in line with the aforementioned 2002 Spike Jonze work. What strikes me is McDonagh’s willingness to back himself into a corner. These are characters who are being molded and changed as the narrative drives forward, leading me to wonder if the film’s not an exercise of the written page: one in which the author arrives at his message the very moment his audience does. When the film is over, Colin Farrell’s Martin has a finished script entitled Seven Psychopaths. What happens leading up to that might feel disconnected, but to me it seems purposeful. Psychopaths entertains on a surface level; but I was more fascinated with the whys and hows of specific instances we probably should let audiences discover for themselves.
Josh: I respect McDonagh enough to assume this script turned out how he wanted it, how he saw it in his head. But when a writer gets meta with screenwriting in the very concept of his screenplay, I expect something more profound from the end result — especially from a heady and satirical guy like McDonagh. That’s what disappointed me about the film once it was all said and done. It is an expertly put together and very fun film, but its commentary on screenwriting and cinema violence didn’t even connect with me as commentary. It bounced of me as pure dialogue and nothing more, which unfortunately gave it all a sour flavor verging on pretentiousness at times.
But let’s talk about what is great here. Foremost: Sam Rockwell. Moon is pretty plainly Rockwell’s best dramatic performance. But Psychopaths has replaced Galaxy Quest as my favorite of his comedic performances. The man consumes every scene he is in, and McDonagh (having worked with Rockwell on the aforementioned A Behanding in Spokane), clearly knows exactly how to write for the actor. And his performance just seems to keep expanding and getting better and better as McDonagh increasingly positions Rockwell as the driving force and center piece of the whole film. A Behanding in Spokane also starred Christopher Walken, and McDonagh performs similar magic here. Younger readers can be forgiven thinking of Walken only as a clown. His post-Pulp Fiction career seemed to merge with his appearances on Saturday Night Live, turning him into a walking homage to himself like William Shatner, with only a few movies here and there – like Catch Me If You Can – reminding us that he used to be serious actor. Obviously Walken is doing comedy here, but he’s also playing a real character. He isn’t just mugging and coasting by on his signature speaking rhythm. And Tom Waits is just sublime. He’s usually sublime, but he’s also been wasted in a lot of crap movies in the past decade.
Tim: Walken and Waits are scary men here, and both performances know when to reign it in comedically to amp up the drama. Walken’s monologue in the desert is spectacular work, his best in years. What I take away from the performance is a Christopher Walken who’s finally given opportunity to integrate his comedic persona in with his dramatic chops. This guy swings every which way on the emotional spectrum yet manages to always land on lovable. Waits is fabulous as well, as it seems finally he has a director skilled enough to make use of the singer-songerwriter’s withdrawn mannerisms and smoker’s voice.
But even the performances that truly connect pale in comparison to Sam Rockwell in what I believe to be next-level material for the actor. He’s always been capable but this is work that pushes him into household name territory. The offers he gets moving forward will have everything to do with what the actor shows off here. Dangerous, funny and with an increasingly tenuous grip on reality, the character of Billy Bickle is bottled up and unleashed in a manic delivery that practices less and less restraint throughout the film. I’ve always thought Rockwell was a great actor in need of a defining star-making turn. This was it.
Josh: I can’t imagine anyone not loving Rockwell in this. Which highlights what is actually my biggest issue with the film: Colin Farrell’s character, Marty. To be perfectly honest, I don’t mind that the film didn’t “add up” as much as it may seem like I do. Because above all else, I go to the movies to be entertained, preferably in a smart way. Psychopaths got me there, and then some. But Marty is a lousy lead, particularly in contrast to the colorful and fascinating supporting players. It would be easy to say it is Farrell’s fault, but that would be wrong too. Farrell is fine in the part. He’s no Rockwell, but who is? The character is just uninteresting. If he is meant to be our McDonagh stand-in, then I’m not really sure what McDonagh is trying to tell us about himself. Cause I’m positive he isn’t that dull. Marty is strung along by the film, detached from the narrative despite always being present, and never impacting anything. He is an observer in his own story. And Farrell, who is a perfectly capable actor (and sometimes great), is not able to do much of anything with his position.
Tim: To the dismay of Farrell fans, this is a film that needs a straight man – that duty falls to the Irish thespian. Aside from his alcoholism and fits of blackouts, there isn’t much to Marty. For me it becomes much more interesting to view these characters as extensions of a conflicted personality – applying his own twisted predispositions onto real life situations. So while Farrell is reduced to delivering reaction in many scenes, he’s playing a character aghast at his own violent tendancies. I’ve never been terribly impressed with the actor outside of a scant performance or two, but his restraint is warranted given everything happening around him. There needed to be an anchor of sanity in this myriad of crazy. That’s Marty.
Another performance that suffers belongs to Woody Harrelson. His Charlie Costello is such an oddball – a mobster who’s driven to tears when his Shih Tzu Bonny gets kidnapped. This is a role Harrelson can carry in his sleep, and of course he’s funny in it. To me, he just feels underwritten. There’s a scene the actor shares with Linda Bright Clay that’s one of the film’s strongest, but everything that comes after are attempts at reigning his character back. I sense McDonagh was loath to give the film a true-blue villain, but with Costello the film doesn’t go far enough.
Josh: Agreed on Harrelson. But more so than the part being underwritten, I think it is just too old-hat at this point. We’ve seen this sort of character, this sort of joke, repeated endlessly since the mid-90s. Oh, a violent scary tough guy who gets ironically emotional about a really girlie thing, and then gives little speeches about how he’s feeling?! Wacka wacka! Psychopaths doesn’t feel like as much of a late-to-the-party relic as, say, Smokin’ Aces did. But the story and characters don’t exactly feel fresh. And Harrelson’s Charlie Costello is the embodiment of that. Of course, what makes Psychopaths nothing like Smokin’ Aces is that McDonagh’s script and his handling of said script are able to (mostly) distract you from the johnny-come-lately-ness of the film’s concept.
I do disagree on Marty though. The film does indeed need a straight man for Rockwell and the others to orbit around, but being a straight man doesn’t preclude a character from being interesting. Just look at In Bruges and Brendan Gleeson. By making Marty an alcoholic, it also doesn’t seem like McDonagh wanted the character to be a cipher — which, even though I wouldn’t get it, could be argued as further commentary on screenwriters. It seems like the character/performance just fell flat.
Tim: Your assessment is a fair one, but I see Marty as one surrogate in a film with more than a few – and as a filter of sorts for these extentions of McDonagh’s psyche. Despite the varying mileage one finds in a few of the lesser characters, Seven Psychopaths is a film that promises to reward on repeat viewings: an intelligent composition that entertains and trusts the viewer enough to let them figure shit out for themselves. I don’t blame CBS Films for a misleading promotion due simply to what an unsellable film this reveals itself as. This is not about a stolen Shih Tzu, it’s a twisted window into one man’s craft and a creativity predisposed to violence. McDonagh’s acknowledging his own culpability and critiquing the relationship between imagination and influence. That he manages to do it in such a spirited and unpretentious manner makes Seven Psychopaths a rare treat indeed.
Josh: It does feel like a treat. One with empty calories, but hey, plenty of delicious things have empty calories. As I’ve already said, despite my problems with the film, I already have a strong urge to watch it again. Mostly just to bask in Rockwell burning up the screen. In a perfect world, where comedy is taken more seriously, Rockwell should grab an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor next year.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Out of a Possible 5 Stars