Posted: October 12, 2012 at 1:58 a.m.
LITTLE ROCK Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh doesn’t make movies; they’re more like balancing acts. With In Bruges and his latest, Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh achieves some logical and narrative leaps and contortions that would make Cirque de Soleil envious. On the surface, McDonagh appears to be telling a conventional crime yarn with wittier dialogue. After a couple of minutes, however, Seven Psychopaths goes off the rails and never returns.
Not that it should.
Even the catchy title is misleading. The viewers do indeed encounter seven psychopaths, but some aren’t even part of the main story, and their identities do come as a bit of a jolt. Los Angeles is being terrorized by a serial killer who leaves a specific playing card with the victim after every murder.
While this nameless assassin is in the background, the city has a somewhat more comical crime spree. An animal shelter volunteer named Hans (Christopher Walken) and a struggling actor named Billy (Sam Rockwell) have set up a lucrative racket by secretly abducting dogs and then returning the pooches once the reward posters have been posted. Because the owners are so elated to be reunited with their dogs, they don’t think to ask how they disappeared in the first place.
This seemingly foolproof scam goes awry when Hans and Billy kidnap Bonny, an adorable Shih Tzu. It turns out the dog’s owner is a volatile gangster named Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson). Charlie may be violent and temperamental, but he’s smart enough to see through the ruse and sends thugs to find the captive Bonny.
Meanwhile, Billy is trying to help his Irish screenwriter pal Marty (Colin Farrell) with his stalled script Seven Psychopaths. He even coaxes a self-confessed homicidal loon (Tom Waits, cuddling a rabbit) to grant an interview for Marty’s research. As he writes, Marty keeps finding his fictional wackos bear an eerie resemblance to his friends, and it’s not just because he has a drinking problem.
Marty’s habits are alienating his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish), while Billy’s impulsive actions could put himself and his occasional squeeze Angela (Olga Kurylenko) in danger. McDonagh doesn’t wrap all these violent profane stories in a bow, and that’s part of why the film works so well. The stories within stories do fit, but McDonagh leaves just enough room for the audience to piece the rest of the tales and sub-tales for themselves.
In between the gun play and the banter (Rockwell’s rant about Gandhi’s “eye for-an-eye” speech should be a ringtone), McDonagh and the cast create characters who may not always be likable, but they are fascinating.
Walken’s Hans may be a con artist, but his moral compass is so steady, he has no qualms about facing down people who wouldn’t think twice about killing him. Walken’s comic timing could be used for atomic clocks, so any gaps in McDonagh’s multi-layered text are easily filled by Walken’s vise-like grip on the role.
Harrelson expectedly steals the show as the monomaniacal Charlie, and the supporting cast is full of familiar faces who may or may not be playing major roles.
Because of his fondness for violence, it’s easy to accuse McDonagh of going for shock value. But because he can deliver genuine surprises with the jolts, it’s safe to say he sets a gold standard.
Seven Psychopaths 89
Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Olga Kurylenko, Woody Harrelson
R for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 10/12/2012