Film noir and Samuel Beckett-style absurdism collide to memorable effect in Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh's highly entertaining follow-up to In Bruges. The sheer wit of the dialogue and the very striking central performances ensure that we never become exasperated by a self-reflexive screenplay or by the moments in which McDonagh seems just a little bit too pleased with his own conceit.
Colin Farrell, underplaying nicely, stars as Marty, a hard-drinking screenwriter working on a thriller called Seven Psychopaths but struggling with an acute case of writer's block. The story that he is trying to write is playing itself out around him. He is surrounded by murderous psychopaths, chief among them Billy (Sam Rockwell), his entirely unreliable best friend.
McDonagh delights in taking the most vicious gangsters imaginable and then contriving a situation in which they're all fighting over a shih tzu. The pug in question belongs to gang boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a cold-blooded killer who is nonetheless ridiculously sentimental over the fate of his dog. The coiffured little animal has been kidnapped by Hans (Christopher Walken), whose racket is seizing dogs and then returning them to their owners for a sizable price.
The violence here is unrelenting. Characters are introduced only to be shot to death moments later. The bloodcurdling antics of Billy and Charlie are mirrored by the even more grotesque scenes that Marty dreams up with the help of his friends.
One way to look at Seven Psychopaths is as satire at the expense of Hollywood thrillers, many of which earnestly contrive situations almost as ridiculous as those played for fun here and treat women characters in even more tokenistic fashion.
As in Reservoir Dogs, the action is continually undercut by the wisecracking dialogue. However, McDonagh's writing has a deadpan, self-mocking quality that not even Tarantino can match.
His actors, meanwhile, are all having a field day. A cravat-wearing, peyote-taking Walken sends up his image as the sleek, malevolent gangster we remember from Abel Ferrara films. Rockwell plays his character in gleeful, zany fashion, as if he is on leave from an episode of The Monkees. There's a tremendous, grim-reaper-like cameo, too, from the 86-year-old Harry Dean Stanton, and a very strange one from Tom Waits. Amid all the bloodletting, Farrell maintains a nice line in boyish innocence.
Seven Psychopaths looks bound to achieve cult status. The sheer zest of the storytelling and wonderfully oddball humour will carry audiences along – even if they can't quite work out what the film is really about.