Seven Psychopaths is a smart and well-executed dark comedy full of over-the-top violence and intriguing rumination on human nature and the joy of killing.
In 2008, writer/director/producer Martin McDonagh released In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes. Despite an underwhelming box office performance, the film found success among critics and as a cult favorite after its home format release. Four years later and McDonagh is back, once again teaming with Colin Farrell, for another black-dramedy, Seven Psychopaths.
McDonagh is aided in his efforts this round by an enormous ensemble cast that includes (in addition to Farrell) Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Christopher Walken, Harry Dean Stanton, Woody Harrelson, and Gabourey Sidibe, among others. Does Seven Psychopaths offer a movie experience that will be appealing to In Bruges faithfuls as well as casual moviegoers – so that the fan-favorite director can earn solid box office profits in addition to critical acclaim?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. While Seven Psychopaths retains the same ultra-violent dark-comedy approach of In Bruges, the cast of familiar actors, Los Angeles setting, not to mention the central dog-napping set-up, positions McDonagh’s latest film for greater visibility this round – without undercutting the strength of his writing or storytelling. In Bruges fans who were worried that the sizable cast, not to mention the tense departure of Mickey Rourke and last minute casting of Harrelson, might have convoluted McDonagh’s final product can rest easy. In many ways, Seven Psychopaths is a step up for the director – as he attempts to tackle larger questions about life, death, and psychopaths.
This time around Farrell is playing a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, Marty, who spends all day drinking instead of writing. However, when Marty is kicked out by his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish), he’s forced to take refuge on the couch of his best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell) – a con man who, along with partner Hans (Christopher Walken), steals dogs and returns them to owners for reward money. Unfortunately, just as Marty hits rock bottom, Billy steals a Shih Tzu belonging to notorious crime lord, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who goes on a blood-splattering rampage in search of the beloved dog. Through the highs and lows of the experience, Marty begins to fill in the pages of his screenplay, “Seven Psychopaths,” reappropriating the various situations, and mentally unstable personalities, for life on the big screen – in addition to learning that some psychopaths aren’t as bad as they might seem.
Moral ambiguity is a major focus of the performances – as many of the actors attempt to showcase the psychopathic extremes of their characters. Some are certainly more interesting than others: Rockwell walks a playful line (and provides an especially memorable monologue) while Walken’s turn as Hans offers some of the film’s most enjoyable as well as emotional moments. Farrell’s Marty, while entertaining scene to scene, is pretty bland overall and, despite a large amount of time dedicated to establishing (and frequently mentioning) his personal story arcs, he’s just an observer and doesn’t really develop outside of writing the script.
The rest of the ensemble is massive and viewers will be treated to a steady stream of familiar faces in unique and entertaining roles but few of the characters stick around long enough to distract from the core story that McDonagh is telling. Instead, through Marty, who is attempting to make sense of the crazy situation he’s been thrown into (while also trying to get his back on his feet), the director tackles a range of topics including society’s preoccupation with violence, disinterest in meaningful storytelling, and fear of the unknown (both secular and religious) – all while tying together stories involving a range of psychopathic personalities: a Vietnamese soldier, a mask-wearing mercenary, and a pair of homicidal lovers/vigilantes, among others.
To that end, Seven Psychopaths is one of the craziest film experiences that audiences will ever see, while at the same time offering an equal number of exceptionally insightful moments, especially as the film presses into the third act. Throats are cut, heads explode, and even though the movie is outrageously violent at times, McDonagh still manages to use all that brutality for a purpose beyond merely entertaining viewers – managing to present a number of intriguing juxtapositions where brutal people show their vulnerability and vulnerable people show their brutality. In these grey areas, surrounded by an absurd and over-the-top premise, Seven Psychopaths manages to deliver one of the more honest and introspective film experiences in recent memory.
Despite its successes, with so many odd-ball characters running around, not all of the narrative threads in Seven Psychopaths come full circle. A few substantive plot threads are entirely abandoned and, in some cases, the movie prioritizes quick gags over previously established character development. Given the ambitions of the larger story and the size of the ensemble, it’s not surprising that McDonagh couldn’t payoff every single plot point but he definitely focuses his time and energy in the right places. In an especially strong example, one side-lined character actually delivers the most impactful moment of the film. Still, moviegoers who respond to some of the support characters, or showed up to advocate for a favorite actor, might find the focus of their enthusiasm suddenly removed to make way for the primary psychopaths – with little resolution. Admittedly, this happens all the time in movies, it’s just that the amount of familiar faces in Seven Psychopaths makes it more noticeable.
Seven Psychopaths is a smart and well-executed dark comedy full of over-the-top violence and intriguing rumination on human nature and the joy of killing. The film sports an enjoyable ensemble and plenty of memorable performances – even if a few interesting plot threads get dropped in service of the larger project. Moviegoers who can handle philosophical musings accompanied by exploding heads will find that McDonagh has delivered another sharp and entertaining film.
If you’re still on the fence about Seven Psychopaths, check out the trailer below:
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Seven Psychopaths is Rated R for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use. Now playing in theaters.