Movie Column: Seven Psychopaths

Irish playwright-turned-screenwriter Martin McDonagh (of In Bruges fame and with several Broadway hits to his credit) wrote and directed Seven Psychopaths, which came out in theaters last weekend. The main character of Seven Psychopaths is a creatively blocked Irishman named Martin Faranan trying to write a screenplay called, you guessed it, Seven Psychopaths. This movie is definitely one of those campy movie-within-a-movie mind trips.

A few minutes in, Marty and his best friend discuss what his screenplay should be about. Cue the fade into a dream sequence imagining a candidate Seven Psychopaths scene. No time is wasted in letting you know that this movie is going to be about the creative writing process.

All of the disparate storylines—including a delightfully maniacal Sam Rockwell and his dog-kidnapping-and-ransoming business; a sadistic, gangster Woody Harrelson who just wants his dog back and maybe to kill some people along the way; a Quaker Christopher Walken with a garish scar and a cancer-stricken wife; and a bunny-holding, serial-killer killer Tom Waits—could be real, or they could be just manifestations of Marty’s creativity at work. 

The more Marty, played by Colin Farrell, raises his voluminous eyebrows incredulously at what is happening in front of him, the more you wonder whether he is disbelieving of reality or whether he’s expressing surprise toward the absurdity his overworked imagination has cooked up.

The movie that Marty wants to write is about psychopaths, but he doesn’t want it to be a violent noir movie; he wants it to be life-affirming. Seven Psychopaths is, in part, a rumination on the tension between creating a work of artistic originality and using audience-pleasing, Hollywood genre tropes. The result is largely a parody of violent noir movies that reminded me of Hot Fuzz (with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost post-Shaun of the Dead as policemen in the English countryside) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (with Robert Downey Jr. as a small-time actor and crook pre-Sherlock Holmes and Ironman), among others.

It doesn’t quite succeed at subverting the tropes. At one point, Marty is told that his female characters suck, and the female characters in Seven Psychopaths do suck. Some sexy lingerie and a soaking wet T-shirt hold the place of personality for their small roles. There is more screen time for males throwing gendered slurs at women than for the actual appearance of women.

But, when another character suggests that Marty should have written Seven Lesbians instead, about women working through life’s challenges together and “two of them can be black,” we get the point. There’s no room in a Hollywood action movie for something new: he should either work with one genre or another. Scene by scene, Marty’s search for originality becomes more and more fruitless. Finally, originality meets its hilarious death when Marty ends up telling a story at a bar that he thinks he’s made up, but turns out to be his listener’s life story.

The saturation of tropes isn’t all bad though; it makes the movie very fun. We get to enjoy the grisly razor-blade beheadings, the burnings, butcher knives and bloody saws, the Jack of Diamonds serial killer, the merrily multiplying body count and the spectacular final shoot-out, with an added element of tongue-in-cheek exaggeration.

Anyway, it’s not like the movie is unoriginal: a clever juxtaposition of incongruent clichés and detailed characterizations (McDonagh’s previous work as a playwright is apparent), fleshed out by a brilliant array of character actors, gives it creative energy. Meanwhile, the self-awareness of the storyline keeps it feeling refreshing. 

Exactly at the moment when the movie starts to drag, a character asks Marty if he isn’t “tired of his psychopaths idea by now.” If the overuse of meta and surprising yet recognizable “What the hell?” moments makes us a little tired of psychopaths, I’m not too worried. The movie has fun, and it is also clever, making you think a little but not too much. It has just the right amount of intellect to indulge a Claremont student along with great giddy entertainment value, both of which work for relaxing lazily into Fall Break with some friends.

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