FILM REVIEW: Seven Psychopaths (LFF 2012)

In the episode of The Simpsons ‘Saddlesore Galactica’, the character Comic Book Guy notes that the story (the Simpsons get a horse) is a retread of an earlier episode, to which Homer retorts to the effect of “Does anyone even care what this guy thinks?” Later on, Comic Book Guy wears a “Worst Episode Ever” T-shirt as the plot devolves into nonsense about jockeys being evil elves. However, by highlighting the deficiencies in the story, the writers are pre-emptively steeling themselves against inevitable criticism. Unfortunately the gambit does not pay off, and The Simpsons would just never be the same again.

Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths follows a screenwriter called Marty (Colin Farrell) suffering from writer’s block and struggling to gather his disparate ideas together for a screenplay called ‘Seven Psychopaths’. Do we all get what’s happening here? See, as great as In Bruges is overall, it is not without its flaws, and seemingly makes self-reflexive excuses for them (“Two manky hookers and a racist dwarf” sort of sums it up nicely). Seven Psychopaths, with its story-telling segments revealing the titular nutjobs destined for Marty’s work-in-progress that seep in and out of reality, feels like the work of a director who can’t even be bothered to apologise for its scattershot approach, papering over the cracks with claims of metatextuality. Greatness can be borne out of this frustration (see Barton Fink), but Seven Psychopaths comes off as a rather disjointed crime-caper-cum-Hollywood-satire the likes of which you’d thought dried up circa 1999. And what’s more, it knows you know it.

But, BUT, BUT! Amongst the mess there is a lot of very good stuff. The aforementioned psychopath backstory vignettes are impressive. By erring a little too close to real events they are borderline distasteful, and there is some genuinely shocking and bloody violence which jars with the goofy madcap comedy, but they make for interesting standalone tales amid the main narrative thrust – Marty’s dog-napper friends (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken) have stolen the wrong person’s pooch, owned by crime lord Woody Harrelson. For all the jokiness about Harrelson’s missing mutt, it actually leads to some genuinely tense confrontations. And there’s one highly entertaining scene of Rockwell contributing an action-packed climax to the script, thereby anticipating but deliberately undercutting that of the film itself.

It also helps that McDonagh has assembled a quality cast, even if he seemingly doesn’t know what to do with most of them. Clearly In Bruges was enough of a calling card that you get a bunch of familiar faces in distractingly small roles. Of the main players though, Farrell is engaging, Walken is dependably dry and amusing, and Rockwell is practically in Zaphod Beeblebrox mode. Yet, the film’s overly cynical outlook and simultaneous desire to both unravel itself and tie itself up in knots means it is sorely lacking an emotional core. It comes close with Walken’s character, but not close enough amongst all the hubbub. In the end, it all feels a bit mean and nasty, but that’s probably the intended response in a “hey, isn’t Hollywood an awful place for making violence paltable?!” kinda way.

It’s still certainly worth a watch though – its plus points outweigh its negatives – but as far as sophomore efforts go, and despite being a sloppy mish-mash of the two, Seven Psychopaths is no Pulp Fiction and/or Adaptation.

Now, why was I talking about The Simpsons again?

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