An entertaining dose of overkill
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, October 12, 2012
Sam Rockwell delivers a soaring, scene-stealing performance as a verbose criminal low-life in “Seven Psychopaths,” a toxic little bauble of Hollywood gestures, cliches and tropes. As Billy Bickle, a Los Angeles dog-napper who, like everyone in the city, aspires to be a screenwriter, Rockwell doesn’t just hold his own with such oxygen-sucking talent as Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson. He takes firm possession of the screen, infusing his manic, scrofulous character with so much impishly inspired derangement that he almost succeeds in making “Seven Psychopaths” transcend itself as a glib, self-referential genre exercise.
As the latest hyper-talky, super-stylized, smart-but-shallow film from Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, “Seven Psychopaths” serves as a perfectly serviceable follow-up to “In Bruges,” the similarly erudite, aggressively funny and essentially vapid hit-man adventure he directed in 2008. In that film, Farrell played a rookie assassin at large in the medieval Belgian city where, at one point in the course of the film’s giddily circuitous events, he shoots a young man in the eye.
“Seven Psychopaths” takes up almost literally where that scene leaves off, as two anonymous hit men -- played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt -- discuss their boss, who has ordered them to shoot both eyes of their female victim. “I’ve got one exact word for that,” one of them says. “Overkill.”
That could well be the one exact word for “Seven Psychopaths,” in which a screenwriter named Marty (Farrell) starts writing a movie called “Seven Psychopaths,” having been inspired by a story told to him by his friend Billy. While Marty tries to dream up six more homicidal maniacs, Billy and his partner in crime, Hans (Walken), embark on their daily scam, kidnapping dogs and pocketing the reward money. When Billy steals a Shih Tzu, though, he runs afoul of her devoted owner, a pathological crime boss named Charlie (Harrelson).
Trafficking in the larky dark humor of the Coen brothers and the heedless, whiz-bang movie-worship of Quentin Tarantino, McDonagh has never met a reference he didn’t nod to (Billy does a pretty good impression of his Uncle Travis in one sequence involving a mirror). His limber verbal acrobatics, studded with bursts of sordid violence and unbridled vulgarity, are equaled by a vibrantly absurdist visual imagination, whether it’s surrounding a charred corpse with a family of soft white bunnies or casually including a never-played tuba in the background of Billy’s living room.
With Rockwell leading the way, Farrell, Walken and Harrelson prove to be a merry band of deadpan pranksters, plunging into McDonagh’s world of seamy miscreants and hallucinogenic fever dreams with gleeful abandon. (As if “Seven Psychopaths” needed any more cred, Tom Waits shows up in a memorable cameo as one of the title characters.)
As Marty, Billy and Hans keep one step ahead of the vengeful Charlie, “Seven Psychopaths” becomes a document of how the fictional “Seven Psychopaths” gets written, with Marty and Billy arguing about story mechanics, acting out pivotal scenes and, above all, debating cinematic morals. Marty wants his movie to be about more than just the graphic bloodshed and gratuitous depravity of most crime thrillers, while Billy observes unironically that it’s never okay to kill animals in a film, “just the women.”
Like his cinematic alter ego, McDonagh insists he has something serious to say amid the slit throats, bullet wounds and horrific scenes of savagery that comprise “Seven Psychopaths” -- about sexism, self-sacrifice, selective outrage and the enduring pull of screen violence. As both a burlesque and critique of male-wish fulfillment and overcompensation, “Seven Psychopaths” is at least philosophically deeper than the pastiches he’s riffing on.
But the film also begins to feel like a case of a director getting to revel in the very thing he’s reviling.
McDonagh clearly is an astute student of Hollywood’s first lesson: When asked to choose between having your cake and eating it too, just say yes.
Contains strong violence, bloody images, pervasive profanity, sexuality, nudity and some drug use.