Seven Psychopaths (2012; dir. Martin McDonagh) wanders unsteadily between violent crime drama and comedy. That uncertainty makes it both amusing and uncomfortable. One may say something similar about Quentin Tarantino’s films, yet they ultimately verge off towards violent moments of revenge and redemption, while Seven Psychopaths verges towards comedy and introspection, despite continuing violent scenes.
Actually, I might describe this film as a fusion of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men.
Perhaps as a reflection of our utterly amoral and dysfunctioning times, the film’s repeated scenes of violence are presented as if they are in the normal course of things, not to be lingered on or grieved over. Only the death of a central character at the end of the film seems to stimulate real emotion. The overall tone of the film is amoral and madcap. It does not exalt the moments of violence. It’s failure to comment on such moments in itself constitutes commentary on our soulless fascination with violence and death. Yet the film is not entirely consistent—one of its most likeable characters commits the worst mayhem. Yet the Buddhist/Christian hoodlum Hans provides balance: ordered by a thug to “Put Your hands up!” he refuses. Asked why, Hans responds, “Because I don’t want to.” Warned by the thug that “I’ve got a gun,” Hans answers “I don’t care.”
Characters and an always moving, self-reflecting, refreshingly unpredictable plot make this film entertaining and surprising. The screenplay is a major strength. It’s about a screenwriter, Marty (Colin Farrell) who is trying to write a screenplay entitled “Seven Psychopaths.” But he’s struggling: the only psychopath he can think of is “a kind of Buddhist”: “I'm sick of all these stereotypical Hollywood murderer scumbag type psychopath movies. I don't want it to be one more film about guys with guns in their hands. I want it... overall... to be about love... and peace. But it still has to be about these seven psychopaths, so this Buddhist psychopath, he... he doesn't believe in violence. I don't know what the fuck he's going to do in the movie.” So what we have here is another example of a film about a film—in this case, a screenplay within a film--a story about how a story gets written, though in this case the way the story gets written is more interesting than the story itself, which we never see, other than in the title of the screenplay. Seven Psychopaths is about films, about screenwriting and creativity. There’s even a short debate between two psychopaths about the difference between French and American films (one type ends with characters aimlessly wandering in the desert, while the other ends in a hail of bullets).
Primarily there are strange and unusual characters: a true psychopath who murders crime family members, always wearing a bizarre red mask. There’s an older gangster (Hans, played by Christopher Walken) who earns money kidnapping dogs and then returning them to their owners for a reward. He’s a devout Christian who eschews violence. Tom Waits is impressive job as a former hit man named Zachariah. His wife left him when he couldn’t muster the resolve to murder a target. Ever since he’s searched for her, always carrying with him his prized white rabbit. And there’s the murderous Charlie (Woody Harrelson), the worst psychopath of all—he’s reduced to tears and desperation when his beloved shih-tzu is stolen. At the film’s comic center is Billy (Sam Rockwell), the crazed psychopathic best friend who tries to help his screenwriting friend by creating situations and introducing other psychopaths who might provide material for the screenplay. At its contemplative heart is Christopher Walken as Hans, the non-violent true believer who fears nothing. All of the psychopaths want to help write the screenplay. They want to share credit for it too. Marty writes them into the screenplay and, in the process, they become the stuff of the film itself.