Martin McDonagh‘s Seven Psychopaths is one of those knowingly deadpan black comedies that glories in its own off the wall zaniness by bouncing bizarre characters with sociopathic traits off one another in various combinations, much in the same way that McDonagh’s earlier black comedy In Bruges achieved success and notoriety with an existential debate rather more Shakespearian in tone, but Seven Psychopaths goes three stops further down the road to madness and never truly returns.
Both are almost certainly the sort of movie actors love to do, testified by the number of big names participating. All was not sweetness and light in casting, but then it rarely is. Wikipedia tells the story:
The first casting announcements were made on 12 May 2011. Mickey Rourke dropped out of The Expendables 2 to co-star in the film. He later dropped out of Seven Psychopaths after having disagreements with McDonagh, calling him a “jerk-off.” He was replaced by Woody Harrelson. Of the incident, McDonagh said “I was fine with it. Mickey’s a great actor […] I’ve known Woody [Harrelson] for years and years, and he was a perfect choice for this too. He’s got those great dramatic elements which he’s shown in Rampart recently, and he’s always been a fantastic comedian. You need that in this — someone who can be out-and-out funny, but also turn sinister on a dime.”
So we have Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Colin Farrell (a collaborator in In Bruges), Sam Rockwell, Gabore Sidibe and Harry Dean Stanton among others enjoying a good knees up with lots of bloody violence thrown in for good measure. Rockwell and Farrell are mates, after a fashion, Billy Bickle and Marty Faranan. They share plenty of knockabout banter, notably about Faranan’s intended novel about seven psychopaths, stories of whom are then related and the characters woven into the tale.
The joke is that while they search for potential psychopaths they are in fact surrounded by eccentrics and nut cases of every shade. Inevitably serious author Marty is the sole survivor, apart from one other psychopath, Waits’s rabbit loving Zachariah Rigby. Waits is a man born to play psychopaths, while making his own unique style of music. He was born to play this role!
However, my personal favourite of the psychopaths is Walken’s Polish psychopath, Hans Kieslowski, notably for the perverse dignity with which the character behaves after his wife is shot dead by Harrelson’s gangster, Charlie Costello. Costello is mad, nay incensed after his dog is kidnapped, essentially the lynchpin of the plot.
I include the quote above especially for the last paragraph, since being funny and sinister are, here, flipsides of the same coin. McDonagh brazenly plays both sides in this feast of action and feisty dialogue as a backdrop to a satirical analysis of action movie plots, then illustrates his point by allowing his movie to send itself up with riotous abandon. To damnation with convention and final showdowns, but wait – we’ll have a shoot-out anyway. It’s that kind of movie, hell yeah.
Alas, 7P has a tendency towards becoming a hollow projection of its own philosophy, a self-fulfilling prophecy that McDonagh will fall down his own wormhole and use the same clichés in parody that he critiques others for using. At one point accusing the genre of having no genuine roles for women, but then… using women for cameos and cannon fodder. It’s one thing to be knowing but it’s a quality to be used sparingly, like gunpowder and seasoning.
In truth, the pudding is slightly over-egged and nothing like as taut or perverse as In Bruges, but then the strength of that movie is that it is at heart a much simpler cake mix, one where the characters have a chance to shine and gain three dimensions. Most of the characters in Seven Psychopaths feel like cardboard cutouts, and without the skill of actors like Walken, Farrell and Harrelson could easily have been cartoon stereotypes.
The actors are pretty blameless, but star of the show has to be the shih tzu, who stays totally deadpan through the whole movie and turns in a performance rivalling the Jack Russell in The Artist. The only cliche not mentioned by McDonagh is the old chestnut about working with animals and children, then lo and behold…