In only his second feature-length film, Martin McDonagh has once again managed to produce a brilliantly dark comedy that many a veteran filmmaker could only dream of. Following up his 2008 feature-length debut In Bruges, McDonagh doesn’t just avoid the sophomore slump with Seven Psychopaths; rather, he refines his cinematic vision to the point where his mastery of the absurd is trumped only by his intricate plot construction and fascinating character development.
At its most basic level, Seven Psychopaths tells the story of two friends, Marty (Colin Farrell) and Billy (Sam Rockwell). Marty is a screenwriter struggling with a script entitled Seven Psychopaths, while Billy is an out-of-work actor engaged in a dog-napping scheme with partner in crime Hans (Christopher Walken). The situation rapidly escalates when the pair nabs a Shih Tzu, which they later discover belongs to psychopathic crime boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson). The plot thickens as it becomes clear that Charlie is willing to get his dog back by any means necessary.
Based on Seven Psychopaths’ misleading advertising campaign, one would expect that from here the slew of talented comedic actors methodically drive the film forward, turning a clever yet relatively simple premise into an entertaining if somewhat juvenile wild goose chase. In fact, as the film progresses and layer after layer of the intricate plot unfolds, the viewer is left both pleasantly surprised and profoundly affected by McDonagh’s exploration of the fundamental question of how we define our own sanity.
In Seven Psychopaths, McDonagh utilizes the delicate yet effective narrative technique of the story within a story. Marty, who shares the name, profession and Irishness of the filmmaker himself, amasses material for his screenplay while simultaneously acting as the main character in its final production. The backdrop for his writing process is the brightly-lit stage of modern-day Los Angeles, in which the line between fact and fiction is blurred to the point of unrecognizability. The panoply of wannabe movie stars and gangsters that inhabit the film foster an environment in which truth really is stranger than fiction and sanity is nothing more than a relative phenomenon.
Throughout the course of his journey, Marty brings us into contact with a Buddhist monk fixated on retribution, a husband and wife team that serially kills other serial killers, a Quaker who slits his own throat to avenge the brutal murder of his daughter and a vigilante that literally leaves a calling card, the Jack of Diamonds, at the scenes of his crimes. In each case, the psychopaths we meet are brought vividly to life by both the meticulous writing of McDonagh and forceful acting by the talented cast.
In particular, McDonagh lets Walken loose with a Deer Hunter-esque performance, taking his interpretation of the psychopath Hans to unexpected heights. We learn early on that Hans takes part in the dog-napping scheme to pay for cancer treatment for his wife, Myra (Linda Bright Clay); however, this only scratches the surface of the deeply religious and curiously non-violent man. His development culminates with a magnificent final monologue in which he dictates his own ideas for Marty’s script into a tape recorder. In a few short minutes, he not only concludes his own personal journey but also makes a powerful, overarching statement that ties together the seemingly unconnected events that had occurred up to that point. Thanks in large part to Walken’s excellent turn as Hans, McDonagh is able to bring together his twisted sense of humor and philosophical vision.
One of the drawbacks of such a complex work of fiction is that it is at times hard to follow, which forces the viewer to make a concerted effort to keep track of the direction of the plot’s multiple intertwining threads. Admittedly, Seven Psychopaths’ offbeat sense of humor is not for everyone, and the graphic violence may turn off some in the audience. However, if viewed within the context of the film as a whole, both aspects are absolutely necessary if we are to seriously contemplate what it means to be insane in a society with such a narrow definition of sanity. If you are willing to invest the time and energy to fully absorb Seven Psychopaths, you will not be disappointed.