IoS film review: Seven Psychopaths
Until it slips its leash, Martin McDonagh's shaggy dog story is howling good fun
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Sunday 09 December 2012
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 + entsThere were towering ideas, some scintillating performances and revelatory grooves... our writers pick out their personal highlights
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
elephant appealPrince William signs up for our charity appeal
peoplePrepare to be entranced by worms as the molecular biologist gets ready to give the Royal Institution science lectures
elephant appealSo says man jailed for cutting off dead elephant's tusks
booksWe examine the best titles for teens
voicesPeople moan that Christmas is too commercial, the spirit lost. But it is a time to over-indulge, and always has been, says DJ Taylor
scienceResearchers teach border collie to understand sentences using more than 1,000 words
booksA Christmas story in six parts
travelWill high-value tourism help the workshops of this Renaissance city?
food + drinkA trifle without custard? Surely not! Nonsense – and here’s three to finish your festive meal that prove it
Geoffrey Macnab does not like the comedian's big screen debut
Arts & Ents blogs
Heavy rain and years of 'benign neglect' may have caused Apollo Theatre roof collapse
Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
Justin Bieber isn't retiring from music after all
Nymphomaniac, film review: 'Despite the surreal sex scenes this is a serious drama'
The publisher who played with fire: the battle for control of Larsson's £30m legacy
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
David Cameron takes his biggest gamble yet as he gets tough on Europe over immigration
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
Top PR exec Justine Sacco under fire for sending racist tweet before flying to Africa
- 1 Top PR exec Justine Sacco under fire for sending racist tweet before flying to Africa
- 2 French pub fined €9,000 after customers returned empties to bar - because it's 'undeclared labour'
- 3 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 4 The publisher who played with fire: the battle for control of Larsson's £30m legacy
- 5 Police seize possessions of rough sleepers in crackdown on homelessness
- < Previous
- Next >