A mild mannered NBC page goes from zero to hero, making hit shows and makings hits at the same time. A slightly schlubby puppeteer struggles both with his art, his lust for an elusive female co-worker, and his fascination with the portal into the head of another man. A self-aware introvert travels back through his most recent relationship and starts to understand the fallacy of his own romantic mind. These three characters do not share the actors who played them or even the directors who guided them, but they do share two things: a writer, named Charlie Kaufman, and a unique sense of delusion. As Freud would put it, a delusion of grandeur, to the extent where such delusions affect the way that each characters’ story is told, in terms of aesthetics and structure. In George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) leads a double life where, by day, he’s producing shows like The Newlywed Game and by night he’s making hits for the CIA; but Barris’s story, told from his perspective, is so bizarre the audience is thrust into a hyper-stylized fantasy where one is not quite able to tell if he is telling the truth. Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich presents “objectivity” as a deliberately absurdist comedy, playing the concept itself and deconstructing the romanticized “genius” in the form of Craig Schwartz (John Cusack). Lastly, in Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) is so deep set in his introversion, that when he finally is given the opportunity to explore his own memories, he is able to see them for what they are. These are tied together by Kaufman’s singular ability to tap into the cult of the genius and deconstruct what that entails through storytelling, as well as each respective director’s ability to channel those ideas through a visual format.
Writer’s Block sucks. But movies about Writer’s Block are even worse. Generally speaking, films about screenwriters, or writers in general, that have Writers Block are the most mundane, trite, and uninteresting things ever. They seem to be just short of a half assed Woody Allen rip off. The problem with many of those “Writer’s Block” Films is that they appear less to be an examination of the writer or even of human nature, and more whiny “I can’t write” movies. Worse, what they tend to be writing in the film is rather uninspired. But it only took the mastermind Martin McDonagh, the man behind the darkly hilarious In Bruges, to take that inherently meta content, make it even more self-referential and make it one of the funniest, meaningful films of 2012. Seven Psychopaths is dense, clever, and a riotous good time.
Marty (Colin Farrell) is having trouble writing his screenplay. Trying to write a violent film that explores the existential aspects of, well, these seven psychopaths, he’s stuck. Meanwhile, as Marty is having trouble coming up with ideas, his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) gets involved with some mobsters after he… steals a Shih Tzu. All the while, murders are being committed around the area. What is the film about, though? The murders? The unfinished screenplay? The friendship? And what about those titular seven psychopaths?
Part of the brilliance of McDonagh’s swift and funny film is that it’s about all these things, intertwined and inseparable. The murders are, to some extent, the MacGuffin and what moves the film, pacing it around as if it were Marty’s own screenplay. These murders and dog nappings are what get the film rolling, even when we are introduced to the first of the seven psychopaths three minutes into the film. The unfinished screenplay is the framework and narrative structure of the film, what is essentially built to hold the film together in the same way that the office scenes hold The Cabin in the Woods together (actually, a lot of comparisons could be made between the two films). The friendship between Marty and Billy is the heart of the film, something that is at first considered so crass and vulgar that one would think that the film would lack a heart. On the contrary, the film is full of heart. Also, blood.
Marty’s unfinished screenplay, its continual work in progress framework serves a higher purpose. McDonagh is able to comment on the state of film as it is and how it has been for over a century. It seems farfetched, but the meta, postmodern approach, which seems to both honor and satirize the meta-ness of other films like the work of Tarantino, allows itself to seep through the storyline and act as commentary for the audience. Although both Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko are both billed on the poster, leading people to believe that their roles are substantial, neither actress is on screen for more than ten minutes. This fact is commented upon again when Hans Kieslowski (a brilliant Christopher Walken) comments upon the weak development of the female characters in Marty’s script, which ironically (or not) also features only a couple characters. Kieslowski’s main complaint is that there few women that are in Marty’s script lack development and as soon as they start to are whacked off, killed, or stabbed. Although it makes McDonagh a little complicit in his criticisms of females in films (especially in films geared towards men), making him like a funnier Michael Haneke making a funnier Funny Games, what works is that instead of chastising everyone, McDonagh is in on the joke and Walken serves as either the film critic/academic or that guy who read that script you wrote at Starbucks and is now offering criticism. The violence of it all blends the dark material McDonagh has used in the past and, again, as commentary.
There are constant parallels between what is going on in the script and what is occurring in “real life”, an interconnectivity and symbiosis that if one thing happens in the script, it will happen in reality and vice versa. The cleverness behind this is not as blatantly obnoxious as it could have been and instead flows fluidly back and forth. In many ways, the use of the screenplay framework is much like Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation., but even then seems to come off slightly subtler than even Kaufman’s script. Whereas Kaufman seems to show a very obvious and direct correlation between the script and the reality, McDonagh treats his framework like a fluid series of coincidences. The fluidity behind this turns something that would have been dense and overblown into something significantly smoother.
The psychopaths of the title? They, too, serve a higher purpose. From the likes of Walken, Tom Waits, Woody Harrelson, and Harry Dean Stanton, these nutcases and whatever problems they have can serve as two interpretations: a) the men who are these psychopaths don’t let their psychopathy define them and b) they all represent different audience expectations for films. Let us begin with a): each of these men has a story to tell, and while those stories may not technically justify their insanity of what have you, it adds incredible depth and nuance to the characters. That may not be exactly to justify or to somehow force the audience into projecting that kind of complexity into whatever killer may turn up on the news tomorrow, but understanding that depth and nuance in everyone may be the point.
And for b): the various psychopaths and killers in the film seem to represent various audience expectations for movies. This particular theory came to me while I was sitting in the theater while Rockwell, Walken, and Farrell were on their way, avoiding Harrelson’s gangster Charlie Costello. The men are headed to the desert, and while Farrell says he wants to write a film about men going to the desert to talk about existential things, Rockwell responds by saying (or screaming, rather), “WHAT, ARE WE MAKING FRENCH FILMS NOW?!”
While in the desert, the men talk about how to end Marty’s screenplay, and each one has a specific idea of how the film should end. For Billy, a shootout is a must, but for Walken, a philosophical discussion about human nature is the way to go. And although not every psychopath is allowed their input for Marty’s script, it is not hard to tell what they would say about it. This seems to be that the seven psychopaths are the perfect representation of the audience. Walken, who’s character’s surname is Kieslowski, just might step foot to go see A Short Film About Killing, while Rockwell would definitely be a Pulp Fiction or The Expendables kind of man, while Farrell himself might just go and see Jules et Jim. These different approaches to film and entertainment again serve as commentary for McDonagh about not only the film industry and its creative processes, but the reactions to that work. Its satirical nature and treatment of crime films is pure gold.
Breathlessly funny, McDonagh’s script works overtime, and although the camera work doesn’t work overtime (except in the killer sequences) with the dialogue once again showing up as swift and hilarious. Throughout the vulgar, but killer dialogue, there are always erudite observations about human nature, which is part of McDonagh’s brilliance. The performances are highlighted by some of the best acting all year, probably best from Rockwell (who might finally breakthrough, after his masterful turns in such things like Moon) and Christopher Walken.
Martin McDonagh’s clever film works on several levels, making it dense enough for those privy to hyper analysis but breezy enough for anyone else. Featuring some incredible dialogue, Seven Psychopaths investigates both the art of (in)humanity and audience expectation in one of the most meta and funniest films of the year. Seven Psychopaths is, shall we say, a killer film.