After watching this movie, it’s a fair assumption that either director/screenwriter Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) or his marketing has some issues with basic arithmetic and vocabulary. The trailer released for “Seven Psychopaths” promised us exactly that—seven psychopaths. To specify: No.1 the seemingly normal one (Colin Farrell), No.2 his best friend (Sam Rockwell), No.3 the one with issues (Woody Harrelson), No.4 the hot girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko), No.5 the non-violent one (Christopher Walken), No.6 the passive-aggressive girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), and No.7 the one with the bunny (Tom Waits). The next three words are constructive to what you may expect of this movie, so read carefully: The trailer lied.
“Seven Psychopaths” kicks off in Hollywood and narrows in on the plight of Irish screenwriter Marty Faranan (Farrell)—we see what you did there, McDonagh—who struggles through a drunken haze to finish his screenplay, titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem is that he hasn’t even started. Martys’ greatest supporter and aspiring co-writer in this endeavor is Billy Bickle (Rockwell), a deadbeat actor whose main source of income is reward money from grateful owners of lost-and-then-miraculously-found dogs that he kidnapped. Marty crashes with Billy after getting kicked out by his girlfriend Kaya (Cornish), and attempts to continue working on his story. Billy peppers him with motivational pep talks about his alcoholism, and places an ad in the LA Weekly, under Marty’s name, calling all psychopaths to be interviewed for writing material. Despite these well-intentioned if slightly misguided efforts, Billy inadvertently provides his best bud with the biggest source of inspiration when he makes the mistake of stealing a Shih Tzu named Bonny from a dog-sitter (Gabourey Sidibe) who works for Charlie Costello (Harrelson), a violently deranged gangster who suffers no misgivings about leaving a trail of bloody, squishy bits in his dogged (pun intended) quest to recover his canine companion. At this point in the movie, the audience has been introduced to four of the seven psychopaths promised in the trailer, and Charlie’s is the only familiar face.
Dragged into the brouhaha of LA’s criminal underworld are (as expected) the morosely inebriated Marty, as well as Billy’s partner-in-crime, Hans (Walken), who is only in the dog-napping business to pay for his hospitalized wife’s medical bills. Anyone familiar with the shoot-em-up genre knows how these crime capers are supposed to end, in a gloriously gratuitous hail of bullets and Tarantino-style carnage, and our frantic trio of screwballs is well aware of their intended fate. Marty, however, is firm in the belief that the lead characters “should just walk away.” And so, our heroes are whisked away into the Californian desert of Joshua Tree National Park on a mission to write a story that is more than “men with guns in their hands,” a story of peace and love. But don’t worry, although the big, bad trailer aimed to lead audiences astray, the MPAA made good on their rating for “strong violence [and] bloody images.”
Let’s backtrack to the “seven psychopaths” problem. Zachariah (Waits), a.k.a. the one with the bunny, answers the newspaper ad, and recounts to Marty the grisly tale of how he met the love of his life (Amanda Warren), and then how they became self-proclaimed serial killers. The couple fills the slots for psychopaths No.5 and No. 6 on Marty’s trusty yellow notepad, leaving the seventh spot open for a surprise. But here’s a little hint: neither of our starring—if we can still say that after their meager scraps of screen time—actresses claim the seventh spot. Shortly after each woman’s first appearance in the movie, they are hastily swept under a rug of misogynistic jokes and trodden over by the male leads. The blame for this can only be attributed to McDonagh, who likes to poke fun at the racist/sexist humor in his own script, in order to nudge audiences into seeing “Seven Psychopaths” as satirical metafiction rather than another movie in the vein of post-Tarantino crime flicks. But despite his best efforts, the comedic ploy falls just short of convincing.
“Seven Psychopaths” is a great example of a movie that succeeds in spite of itself. McDonagh has proven to be fond of incessantly reminding the audience just how clever he is. The constant references to the metafictional aspect of “Seven Psychopaths” within “Seven Psychopaths” and all the real and imagined psychopaths get stale fast, and the purposely redundant dialogue only jumps the hurdle to solid deadpan on account of strong delivery by the movie’s ensemble cast. If anything, the actors carry the film by making otherwise unlikable archetypes into characters with a smidgen of depth, and it’s by the merit of their top-notch performances that characters like Hans and Billy can get away with the not okay things they say.
Critics lament the unrealized potential of movies that miss the mark usually by folding under the weight of their own ambitions, but no matter which way this movie wrings itself out, there’s always going to be an inch off the top of the glass that can’t be filled. It’s a classic case of “it is what it is.” “Seven Psychopaths” fails to break its chains and revolutionize the genre, but it’s an enjoyable ride with plenty of laughs if you can get over the bumpy pacing and all the gaps in the road. If nothing else, watch it for the world’s most unflappably regal Shih Tzu.