IoS film review: Seven Psychopaths

4.00

Until it slips its leash, Martin McDonagh's shaggy dog story is howling good fun

Film buffs know Martin McDonagh as the writer-director of In Bruges, the most wickedly well-written and snappily directed thriller debut in years − it won the 2009 Bafta for Best Original Screenplay − but before the movies he took the theatre world by storm. His two trilogies of plays, set in the west of Ireland and the Aran Islands, were modern deconstructions of the works of John Millington Synge. They took the wild and amoral milieu of Synge's Playboy of the Western World, and played about with it, conjuring a community where, for instance, food could be bought at the local shop for a currency of news and gossip alone. The results were surreal and funny, if a touch too clever by half: McDonagh seemed keener on playing games with the possibility of theatre than evoking strong dramatic emotions.

You could accuse Seven Psychopaths of something similar, if only you could draw breath long enough. From the first scene, a meeting between two hitmen with a shockingly explosive climax, McDonagh pitches you into a frenzy of stories. We meet a professional dog-napper called Billy (Sam Rockwell) and his partner in crime, Hans (Christopher Walken). We're shown a nasty, dog-loving gangster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who's first seen intimidating a plump, weeping Sharice (Gabourey Sidibe from Precious) who has managed to lose Charlie's shih-tzu to Hans and Billy.

At the centre of the film is Billy's professional writer pal Marty (Colin Farrell), who is trying to write a screenplay entitled Seven Psychopaths. But he's blocked because "I just don't wanna do another Hollywood movie about guys with guns in their hands". He's keen, these days, on peace and love. He toys with the idea of a Buddhist psychopath. Billy, the dog-napper, tries to help by suggesting some possible stories.

One is a tale of revenge involving a scary Quaker preacher stalking the man who killed his daughter. Another involves a Vietnamese guy, in a Catholic priest's dog-collar, in a hotel room with a half-naked hooker. A small-ad in the paper, soliciting for real-life psychopaths with stories to tell, pulls in a grizzled ex-serial killer called Zachariah (Tom Waits) with another story about mayhem, arson and homicide. Meanwhile, Charlie the gangster is getting nearer to the guys who stole his shih-tzu. And there's a new threat out there, from a killer who flicks the Jack of Diamonds card on the body of his victims.

All these hares are soon racing around agreeably. You're dimly aware that several other films are being referenced here: Seven Samurai in the title, Pulp Fiction in the banal conversation of two hitmen, No Country for Old Men in the awkward confrontation between a killer and his victim. The excellent score is by Joel and Ethan Coen's favourite composer, Carter Burwell. You feel in good company. You're happy to go along with the intertwining stories, which are starting to cohere. Alas, McDonagh is too Postmodern an artist to leave us with the comforts of a straight narrative. A dream sequence throws the characters in the air and suggests what might happen to them, as if they don't matter to their creator. The stories we've been following are given alternative endings. Marty (and behind him, writer-director Marty McDonagh) wonders where might be a good place for the climactic shootout. (The audience replies, "Don't ask us, tell us! What is this – The French Lieutenant's Woman?")

Watching how the film pans out is actually quite fun; we still root for Marty and Billy and Hans despite feeling the wind has been taken out of the movie's sails. It's always watchable because McDonagh is a talented film-maker. He loves having his camera creep up on sights the audience would rather not see. In one scene, a character shyly extends a hand to her lover only to have it rejected, while nearby a man with daggers through both his hands is burning to death, and half a dozen rabbits nibble unconcernedly in the foreground. Tarantino would be impressed.

McDonagh is good with actors too: Farrell plays the film's only non-mad role with wide-eyed bewilderment, Rockwell is reliably off the rails, Harrelson can turn on a dime from sentimental to vicious, and Christopher Walken plays Christopher Walken better than he has in ages. Seven Psychopaths will keep fans of In Bruges happy, without ever approaching that film's depth or interest in human psychology.

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit