In writer/director Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, an alcoholic screenwriter (Colin Farrell) and his psychopathic buddy (Sam Rockwell) band together to write a screenplay titled “Seven Psychopaths.” Of course, since one of the co-writers is a free-spirited psychopath and the other is a self-pitying alcoholic, it doesn’t take long before they run afoul of a psychopathic gangster (Woody Harrelson). Christopher Walken, of course, balances out the cast as a pacifist psychopath, and Tom Waits turns up as a bunny-carrying psychopath. Why not?
Seven Psychopaths boasts a large ensemble cast with many different characters and plot strands intersecting and running parallel to each other. There’s Marty, the struggling screenwriter; Billy, the murderous psychopath; Hans, the dog-thief; Charlie, the mob boss; and so on. The core story concerns Marty, Billy, and Hans trying to avoid being murdered after Hans kidnaps Charlie’s precious Shih Tzu; Marty thinks they should give the dog back, Billy thinks they should kill Charlie. At the same time, Marty is trying to complete a script for an upcoming movie. All he has is the title: “Seven Psychopaths.” Billy gets the brilliant idea to put Marty’s phone number and address in the paper next to an advertisement requesting any psychopaths in the area to come and tell their stories to Marty. While running from the murderous Charlie, Marty gets also gets a couple of responses to the ad.
What could have been a tight little caper flick becomes somewhat more muddled and bloated as the story occasionally stops to examine Marty’s struggle to begin his screenplay or to follow the side stories of the film’s various supporting characters. Some characters only turn up for four or five minutes before being murdered; some cryptically appear within the overarching story only to disappear down their own tangents. Sometimes the movie is darkly comic, and other times it strives to be profound and emotional. Seven Psychopaths seems to be about everything and about nothing, it’s energetic and yet it’s uneven.
Ultimately, Martin McDonagh’s movie reminds me of the wave of Tarantino knock-offs that flooded theaters following the critical and commercial success of Pulp Fiction. It seemed that between 1994 and 1999, every other movie featured pop-culture literate hitmen and movie-quoting psychopaths, and for some reason, a lot of these movies also tended to feature Christopher Walken. “Tarantinoesque” actually became an adjective. Everyone wanted to be Tarantino. But that fad quickly died out, because, with the exception of a couple of Guy Ritchie’s early efforts, the movies almost invariably sucked. Only one man can be Tarantinoesque so effortlessly, and that’s Quentin Tarantino (though one could argue that even he’s having a little trouble being himself these days).
On the positive side, Seven Psychopaths ranks among the better efforts to ape Tarantino. At least most of the gags are funny, and Sam Rockwell’s endearing, mad cap performance as a screwball executioner ranks among his best performances. Strong performances from Farrell, Harrelson, and Walken further elevate the material. McDonagh the writer tries way too hard to be clever and cool, but McDonagh the director manages to underplay his role and allow his brilliantly assembled cast to do their thing.
Seven Psychopaths is one of those movies that holds itself out as being fresh, daring, and innovative, but when you peel back the layers, it ends up being little more than clever knock-off of earlier, better films. In this particular case, the movie feels like a cross between Jackie Brown and Adaptation, and it’s every bit as good and as bad as that sounds. However, it certainly feels like there’s been a dearth of good gangster movies lately, and there hasn’t been a really fun meta-movie about Hollywood since Adaptation. So original or not, McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is at least unlike anything else that’s played in local multiplexes in the last few years, and it also manages to be enjoyable rather than infuriating. For all it’s faults, Seven Psychopaths still beats the hell out of most of what has been released from Hollywood over the past six or seven months.