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Zimbio Review - 'Seven Psychopaths,' Insane On Purpose

(Getty Images | CBS Films)
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

Unpredictably violent and outlandishly funny, McDonagh's made a unique modern gangster film, and a smart satire of the genre.
Martin McDonagh's previous film In Bruges, marked him as one of the few cerebral writer/directors with an actual sense of humor. His theater-work has proved the same, but obviously, not many people have seen his plays. Once again McDonagh proves the reward is in the writing and, although Seven Psychopaths doesn't have the wayward danger of In Bruges, it's a much different movie. It's a self-aware exploration of violence in film, artisitic inspiration, and whether or not we should be laughing at any of it.

McDonagh's signature is his perfectly crafted dialogue which has the dexterity to be authentic without sounding written— an important distinction in a gangster film, perhaps the most overdone and challenging genre to get right. In Bruges marginalized gangsters and made them good people who do evil work. In Seven Psychopaths McDonagh wants to have a bit of fun. His cast and his story are so insane, the satire so pervasive, the movie will likely not be appreciated for years to come.

Recalling highbrow fare like Barton Fink or Adaptation, Seven Psychopaths delves into the creative process of writing a screenplay. While McDonagh's writing and characters are unique, his methods are not, and that's exactly the point. He stops frame to introduce his seven psychopaths, the first being "The Jack of Diamonds Killer" who leaves a playing card on his victims... a calling card so overdone, the filmmaker may as well just come out and say it.

After shooting two men in a prologue, the frame stops and "Psychopath #1" is flashed on the screen in mock introduction. Is McDonagh roasting his predecessors, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, etc? Well, he names his main character Billy Bickle. You decide. It's not subtle.

We meet Marty (Colin Farrell) and Billy (Sam Rockwell) as Marty wakes up with his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) and she leaves in a huff. She doesn't like Billy, and vice-versa. Marty is a screenwriter and Billy kidnaps dogs for the reward money. His partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), is currently on a job, but we'll get there.

Marty is writing a screenplay called Seven Psychopaths, a great name, but he's only got one psychopath, The Jack of Diamonds, who Billy conjures, seemingly out of mid-air. Another psychopath called "The Quaker" (Harry Dean Stanton) lives in Billy's imagination as well. Or does he? Marty doesn't care, he's focused on creating a screenplay. Original ideas? Who needs 'em? This is Hollywood. "That's a great psychopath!" He tells Billy.

McDonagh puncuates Billy's stories with savage violence, including some up close and personal throat slashing, but he's trying to get at the heart of the matter. The more extreme and insane the violence, the more entertaining it is, the better screenplay it makes.

(Spoiler alert) Marty, Billy, and Hans are taken out of their comfort zone when Billy kidnaps the Shih-Tzu (again, no accident using this type of dog) of a local mobster, Psychopath #3, Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Charlie kills for perceived slights as his dogsitter (Gabourey Sidibe) finds out, but he's fragile when it comes to the pup. He just can't pull himself together, and he can't find his dog.

Meanwhile. Billy takes out an ad in the paper asking any psychopath to come to his house to tell his story so Marty can finish the screenplay. As the audience surrogate, Marty reacts the entire film. He instigates nothing but by having Billy in his life, he's subjected himself to his friend's trials. Their relationship is the core of the film. Farrell is the calm in the storm. He tones his performance way down and allows the guys around him to run wild. It's a smart, subtle decision.

Soon, a man holding a bunny, Zachariah (Tom Waits), appears at Billy's house. Declaring he "looks okay," Billy invites him in and the man relays an incredible story to Marty. Zachariah is a serial killer who kills serial killers, including some famous ones (like Zodiac). Like the Quaker, and another Vietnamese Psycho (#4), McDonagh slips out of the main narrative to show Zachariah's killing spree. The violence is brutally creative, bordering on hilarious. We see it all onscreen as the tale is told. Marty takes notes.

In between all this craziness, Marty, Billy, and Hans talk... a lot. Billy loves busting Marty's balls about being an alcoholic and being "fucked" because of it. Hans waxes philisophically about life, his wife's death, and their delicate situation (he's "an old time Christian, not like these Fox News fucks," Billy says). Most of the laughs come from these talks, McDonagh's twisted sense of humor shining through. Even the music (Deer Tick's "Christ Jesus") is tongue in cheek. All the while, the gangster's little Shih-Tzu is present. Billy holds him for most of the film, prodding the mutt to give him his paw. He's Billy's "Patty Hearst" and the film's MacGuffin, not a girl, or a suitcase filled with money... a fluffy little dog, as if all this shit wasn't psychopathic enough.

Rockwell and Walken's performances are worth mentioning. Rockwell gives a typically live wire portrayal and his line delivery is golden. For an actor often cast as a nutjob, he rarely is given material worthy of his talent. He finally is here, and his Billy Bickle is his best performance since Moon. Likewise, this is the best we've seen from Walken in years. He gives Hans a bizarre edge and becomes the center of the trio of friends. Older and wiser, Marty and Billy look to him for answers and Hans tries his best to give them, whether he knows anything or not.

Seven Psychopaths concludes with a Mexican stand off at Joshua Tree National Park. Billy, Marty, and Hans hide out from Charlie and continue working on the screenplay. But, Billy calls the mobster, exclaiming the movie's going to end "his way." But it's not Billy's way, he's speaking for his writer/director. McDonagh's working out a thesis here and his psychopaths  are just a means to an end. What the end means, well, that's up to us.

See more photos of Colin Farrell:
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  • Colin Farrell in Premiere Of CBS Films&squot; "Seven Psychopaths" - Arrivals
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  • Colin Farrell in "Seven Psychopaths" Premiere - Arrivals - 2012 Toronto International Film Festival
  • Colin Farrell in The Hollywood Reporter TIFF Video Lounge Presented By Canon - Day 1 - 2012 Toronto International Film Festival
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