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Movie Review: With SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, Martin McDonagh Demonstrates the Lighter Side of Carnage



Since his the premiere of his acclaimed play The Beauty Queen of Leenane, critics and audiences alike been quick to brand Martin McDonagh as an Irish Quentin Tarantino; on the surface, I can see why.  Like Tarantino, McDonagh relishes in a liberal co-mingling of graphic violence and the spoken word – I’m thinking of Leenane, where the bickering between a middle-aged spinster and her mother turns red, or of his award-winning The Pillowman, where an author of beyond-grim fairy tales discovers that someone is acting out his stories’ grisly hooks – and both men get away with such tonics because their works are deeply, profoundly hilarious.  In Django Unchained, Tarantino depicts the horrors of slavery with such savagery as to make Roots look tame, but what keeps it from drifting into depravity are moments of loony respite, like the beat where murderous Klansmen squabble with each other over their defective white hoods.  So it goes with McDonagh; his In Bruges has a virtuoso sequence when hero (Colin Farrell) and villain (Ralph Fiennes) pause mid-gunfight to argue over the proper sportsmanship of their duel.

And then it hit me, watching McDonagh’s newest feature, the brilliant meta-comedy Seven Psychopaths.  If McDonagh wants to be anyone not himself – and I don’t think he does, not really – it’s the Coen Brothers, whose films tap into the same screwy-genius mindset that McDonagh so often finds himself, and without the bloat and self-regard of the Tarantino canon (and I say this as a card-carrying member of the Quentin Tarantino Fan Club).  The Coen Brothers are arch; the Coen Brothers are quirky; the Coen Brothers have a predilection for the red stuff (Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, the aptly titled Blood Simple); but like McDonagh, they don’t really truck in Tarantino’s beloved post-modern references.

At times, Seven Psychopaths feels like McDonagh’s grand repudiation of the Tarantino link.  Dig that opening scene, where two hitmen (played by Boardwalk Empire‘s most prominent Michaels: Pitt and Stuhlbarg) chat aimlessly about movies as they await their latest target.  Their conversation feels like Pulp Fiction‘s John Travolta/Samuel L. Jackson relationship writ small, and we expect more of the same, right up until a masked stranger blows both assassins away, and we’re off to the races.

It’s Seven Psychopaths in microcosm, as McDonagh sets up familiar tropes, only to explode them.  McDonagh gives us another version of how the criminal underworld eats itself, except this time, the predator is a fearsome mob boss (Woody Harrelson, glowering, vicious) given to fits of despair over his missing Shih Tzu, and his prey isn’t a rival gang or the police, but two affable dog-nappers (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken).  Walken is particularly genial, and that fact alone provides Seven Psychopaths with a certain subversive jolt; this is an actor who has played some of the silver screen’s most memorable whack-jobs (in True Romance, or King of New York, or Pennies from Heaven), yet he does the most nuanced and gentle work of his career here, as a thoughtful pacifist who values friendship above all else.

Or there’s the way McDonagh pushes Rockwell’s “wild card” stereotype to twisted extremes.  Or how deftly he undercuts the picture’s violence: when one of the main characters receives his bloody comeuppance, McDonagh lingers not on the bubbling bullet wound but on the character’s unexpected – and utterly delightful – final grace note.  Even the film’s po-mo structural conceit – the A-plot concerns a frustrated screenwriter (Farrell again, acting as the straight man to all this madness) trying to write a screenplay called, you guessed it, Seven Psychopaths – starts out as Adaptation-lite and ends as decidedly its own beast, with Rockwell and Walken’s more outré adventures overcoming Farrell’s creative struggles through sheer force of will.

It’s McDonagh’s love of the left turn, of the digressive beat, that gives Seven Psychopaths its kick.  Just when the plot starts rolling along, he’ll toss in an unexpected character detail or dramatize another vignette that Farrell’s character is working on (the best of which feature compact-yet-sharp turns from Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Waits), and we’re hopelessly, gloriously lost again.  In many ways, Seven Psychopaths plays like the lighter version of The Pillowman; both pieces center on protagonists in loving/destructive relationships with people who are not what they seem, and both value the act of storytelling over anything resembling traditional narrative progression.

But Seven Psychopaths is shaggier, more discursive, and it is this quality that sharpens the Coen Brothers connection: if In Bruges was his Fargo, a razor-sharp, perfectly plotted thriller, this is his Big Lebowski – McDonagh’s rambling, easy-going ode to why we go to the movies in the first place.  Seven Psychopaths isn’t one-size-fits-all, but it’s distinctive, and it’s engaging, and to a select subset of weirdoes, it’s manna from heaven.

Sony’s Blu-ray looks great.  Working with the cinematographer Ben Davis (Layer Cake), McDonagh gives the film a sun-bleached, distinctive look, and the HD picture effectively replicates that look.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track ably handles the film’s shootouts, though this is a much more talk-heavy feature than you might be expecting.

Supplements are well produced and terribly short, unfortunately.  We get four behind-the-scenes featurettes, all of which clock in at under three minutes – “Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths,” “Colin Farrell is Marty,” “Woody Harrelson is Charlie,” and “Crazy Locations” – and two weird non-making-of videos: “Seven Psychocats,” which is the theatrical trailer done over with cats in the actors’ roles, and “Layers,” a clip reel from the film.  The film also has an UltraViolet Digital Copy.

From start to finish, I was enamored with Seven Psychopaths.  Less a tight thriller than a jokey, extremely witty digression on violence in the media, the picture makes perfect use of Martin McDonagh’s verbal flair and his eye for casting (I really cannot stress enough how good Walken is here).

Seven Psychopaths reaches Blu-ray on January 29th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.