Cornering The Market In Crazy

“Seven Psychopaths” is a hot mess, playing fast and loose with conventional storytelling while proudly wearing a badge of unrelenting absurdity. Yet, it’s anything but the light, quirky caper that its trailers suggest. The characters speak in a staccato manner that punctuates the extreme violence surrounding them, and the screenplay within a screenplay conceit is intermittently head spinning. The world that writer-director (and playwright) Martin McDonagh has created here is world of offbeat characters drowning in blood and alcohol – “Cheers” meets “Reservoir Dogs” meets “Mulholland Drive” – but this time around, Woody Harrelson is packing heat. It would be inaccurate to state that the film goes off the rails at any point, because it’s never on the rails.

Colin Farrell stars as Marty, an aspiring screenwriter who’s looking for inspiration for his latest work – “Seven Psychopaths.” He needn’t look far. His best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), is a dognapper who works with his friend Hans (Christopher Walken) in kidnapping dogs and collecting the rewards. Billy and Hans happen to steal the Shih Tzu of a maniacal mobster, Charlie (Harrelson), and their plan goes awry in a big way. This is where the last traces of narrative orthodoxy end. We’re introduced to seven psychopaths along the way, some real, some fictional, as Marty’s script falls in to place. The film is self-aware to the extreme, but McDonagh expertly allows to viewer to choose his or her own lense through which to view the picture.

McDonagh’s previous effort was the brilliantly sardonic “In Bruges.” It was a fascinatingly droll tale of two hitmen bumming around a boring European town, but it was grounded and personal amidst its more violent trappings. Conversely, taking “Psychopaths” at face value is a mistake. With the introduction of a serial killer of serial killers, Zachariah (Tom Waits), it’s obvious that story isn’t interested in grounding itself, but hovering somewhere between incongruity and ridiculousness. The second half of the film is a commentary on itself, and I’d imagine this would be the point at which many viewers might check out. Luckily, McDonagh has more to offer than “meta” storytelling.

Christopher Walken turns in his best performance in a decade, and although a little bit of Sam Rockwell goes a long way, he’s great in the first half of the movie – eventually, inevitably wearing out his welcome. Colin Farrell gets the short straw between the leads, given surprisingly little to do, but as the relative voice of reason among a cast of crazy people, he does a fine job. It’s amazing to see how well Farrell can do with the right material, as opposed to his appearances in lesser films like “Total Recall.” And despite advertising to the contrary, Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko are barely in the film. Hans even notes that Marty can’t write female characters, which is one of the better in-jokes in relation to film they’re in.

If you’re still taking the picture seriously by the 90 minute mark, that feeling will be washed away by a madcap, imaginary action sequence with distant echoes of “Bowfinger” and “Tropic Thunder,” but with as much violence as “The Expendables.” Even so, the biggest aftershocks on display might be of Wes Craven’s “Scream.” “Seven Psychopaths” is essentially a movie within a movie, and at least one of its characters is devoted to the romantic notion of the bad guy being done in by a final shootout in the middle of the desert. I’ll leave it for you to discover whether or not McDonagh agrees with his creation, but the parallels to “Scream” (characters acting out their own movie) are undeniable. In the end, the film alternates between being funny, disturbing, unintelligible – or all of the above. Although “Psychopaths” is an enjoyably confounding experience, some will be put off by its parade of esoteric ideas. But what a parade it is.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (OK)

Release Date: October 12, 2012
Studio: CBS Films
Director: Martin McDonagh
Screenwriter: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Abbie Cornish, Tom Waits, Olga Kurylenko, Zeljko Ivanek
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use)