“Seven Psychopaths” is not so much under- or over-written as it is written. It’s a comedic crime thriller that becomes about its own construction ala “Adaptation,” with writer/director Martin McDonaugh figuring as the lead. But unlike the Spike Jonze film, “Seven Psychopaths” never really gels right; its disparate elements, often strong on their own, chafe against one another as the filmmaker contorts them to fit together into one movie. “Seven Psychopaths” is a mess of good scenes, weak ones, and conflicting thoughts and feelings regarding real life and fictional violence, ultimately suggesting little more than that McDonagh is trying too hard.
In the film, Colin Farrell plays protagonist Martin Faranan, McDonagh’s cinematic stand-in — an alcoholic screenwriter whose new script begins and ends with its title (which just so happens to be “Seven Psychopaths,” as well). Martin’s best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), is a reckless dog-napper who works with Hans (Christopher Walken), an elderly thief, at stealing canines from the wealthy and returning them for reward money. This business puts them at odds with Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a gangster whose only love is the Shih Tzu they’ve kidnapped. As the three main characters go on the run from a vengeful Charlie, they all collectively work on ideas for Martin’s script, which will concern a batch of serial killers with disparate motivations.
What starts out as a (good) Tarantino-esque crime movie quickly shifts to being a mild satire about Hollywood scripts and the artistic necessities when crafting violent pictures for the screen, before then merging the two into a treatise on pacifism, with each remaining scene seemingly taking on any of those properties at random. The philosophical material mostly plays well as it unfurls, with uniformly excellent performances from the cast, but good luck figuring out what it all adds up to when the credits finally roll. (Speaking of which, McDonagh engages in the incredibly annoying practice of starting the credits, waiting a moment, and then throwing in another scene.)
The writer/director demonstrates the same proficiency for clever dialogue that he did in his cult hit “In Bruges,” even though here the lines are more derivative than in that film. Further, many of the supporting characters are given precious little talking time to make themselves into more than colorful sketches. The main trio, however, are well-drawn with nice hints of complexity. For instance, Rockwell’s Billy serves as a sort of id to Martin’s ego and Walken’s Hans is a Quaker whose devout beliefs have a spiritual and calming effect as the trio’s situation worsens.
McDonagh, whose works are notoriously dark and violent, expresses self-doubt over the morbid content of his writing via Martin, who struggles with the virtues of his art. Martin writes movies that rain death to the characters, but in real life, he steadfastly opposes actual violence. This conflict, clearly McDonaugh’s own, results in a mixture of pacifistic moralizing and macabre bloodshed that aims for insight on the tension between a writer’s personal beliefs and their artistic output. Unfortunately, this philosophical struggle ultimately feels clumsy, since the climax presents an opportunity to go in another direction but settles for a traditionally bullet-filled conclusion.
With “Seven Psychopaths,” McDonagh aptly demonstrate just how hard it is to write a complex, thrilling Hollywood movie, as his attempt at synthesizing different genres and tones produces such an unwieldy result. Rarely does one find a work this self-conscious about its existence as a film, and less comfortable with that knowledge.