If screenplays were architecture, there would be no mistaking the Martin McDonagh school – he’s that sacrilegiously clever fellow who makes the gargoyles the centrepiece of his church. That was the design of In Bruges, and it’s only compounded in Seven Psychopaths. So your reaction to a McDonagh movie is pretty much a function of how you feel about those gargoyles. Since they’re smart, witty and speak in crackling dialogue flecked with self-referential ironies, the lads (and laddishness abounds) are awfully easy to love, not least because they find it even easier to love each other. In the end, cast and audience are having such fun that it seems almost mingy to complain when the church, lacking a foundation, collapses under the weight of its own cleverness.
In Bruges opened, and continued, with an odd couple of mobsters bickering like the loquacious scamps in a Tarantino flick. Ditto here, yet this time the two are dead before the credits can finish their roll. Of course, we’re no longer in Bruges but, as a glimpse of the iconic sign asserts, in Hollywood. That assertion is reinforced with the introduction of Marty (Colin Farrell), who’s given both McDonagh’s name and his vocation. Yep, this Marty is a screenwriter too, trying to booze his way past the blockages in his latest venture. To date, all he’s got is the title, and if you guessed Seven Psychopaths, well, award yourself a meta-star and settle in for a movie about the movie germinating within the movie.
Clearly, a conceit that cloying demands an anti-boredom inoculation, which gives Doctor McDonagh the perfect excuse to inject massive doses of his idiosyncratic wit. And who better at idiosyncrasy than Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, plus the reigning King of Quirk, Christopher Walken. In this acting company, Farrell is normalcy incarnate – little wonder he’s essentially reduced to the straight-man role.
As for the recursive plot, it seems Billy (Rockwell) is keen to help his best friend with that stalled screenplay, at least when he can get away from his day job – kidnapping dogs. He swipes the pooches, leaving his partner Hans (Walken) to return them to their grateful owners in the certainty of a fat reward. The scam is sure-fire until they snatch the wrong canine from the wrong guy – a shih tzu called Bonny from a gangster called Charlie (Harrelson). Whatever the psychopathic leanings of the dog-nappers, this guy is the real deal with a real gun prone to put real bullets in real noggins. Imagine that.
Yep, the tension between the imagined and the real, between the movie script in Marty’s head and the one unfolding on the screen, is the biggest thread in the tapestry. Nothing new there. What’s refreshing, though, is the palpable delight of the principal cast riffing off their inside-out roles, and the sheer glee of every actor except Walken playing in any scene with Walken.
Inevitably, his louche take on Hans is first among equals; even better, McDonagh uses him to provide a sort of running commentary on the state of Marty/Martin’s picture. “Your women characters are awful,” he laments, and so they are. Later, his screenplay assessment is upgraded to a giddy, “It’s got layers!”, but that might just be the peyote talking. Later still, as the identified psychopaths climb toward the allotted seven, he wonders aloud, “They get kind of tiresome after a while, don’t you think?”
Yes and no. Yes, because all the solipsism and the Tarantino/Scorsese homages do wear thin. But no, because unlike In Bruges – which promised more substance than it delivered – this flick never pretends to be anything but a bright hall of fun-house mirrors. And there, so gloriously distorted, gargoyles look right at home.