Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Seven Psychopaths Movie Review

What is it with filmmakers who start out with some quirky little movie that gets a lot of recognition for its panache, or great writing, or great storytelling and then they’re given a big budget and bunch of movie stars and things just seem to run away from them? Martin McDonagh started out with In Bruges, which signaled the start of a promising career in the gangster/hitman genre, the kind of talky pictures about wretched individuals who nevertheless epitomize cool made famous by Quentin Tarantino. Seven Psychopaths is his second feature film, an absurd farce of a story about an Irish screenwriter named Marty (autobiographical much?) trying to write a movie called Seven Psychopaths (self-referential much?).


In his desperation to be clever and to be all things to all people, McDonagh has created a story of such confusion, devoid of grace and subtlety, it is a far cry from the quiet little gem that launched his career. He tries to pack so much into his story that he gets lost, not at all unlike Marty, played by Colin Farrell in a performance that vacillates between little lost puppy and distraught neurotic. He’s not alone in the overacting department. Sam Rockwell plays his best friend Billy, an out of work actor who supplements his lack of income by kidnapping dogs and then collecting reward money. Rockwell screams and stomps and grimaces through a thankless role that basically asks him to be the most unbelievable character in a movie this century. Woody Harrelson is not much better as Charlie, a crazed crime syndicate boss with a soft spot for his shih tzu Bonny. When Billy kidnaps the dog, that’s when all hell breaks loose because Charlie will kill anyone who stands in the path between him and his beloved. He’s one of the seven, get it? But if you start trying to count them, you’re lost. McDonagh tries to count them for us, but then two of them turn out to be the same guy and there are others still who might qualify. I don’t know. And one isn’t even part of the story, but is just a character dreamed up by Marty whose story is fleshed out later Hans.

Hans is Billy’s partner in the doggy stealing business, played by Christopher Walken, who turns out rather surprisingly to be the one actor in the film refusing to gobble up the scenery. Hans has so many sad stories in his past you can’t possibly expect his end to be anything other than tragic. Walken is playing against type here. He’s not menacing. He might not even be one of the psychopaths. He’s just a sad father and husband to a woman battling cancer whose faith in God gets him through. Tom Waits also brings a certain measure of calm, along with creepy, to Zachariah, a self-proclaimed psychopath who carries a white rabbit and tells a bizarre story of he and his wife exacting revenge on the worst elements of society. His story fits the revenge theme that permeates the film, but each story is shoehorned into the screenplay. Zachariah doesn’t belong here. It’s a careless diversion from the narrative.

Faith is the second common thread (after revenge) that binds together McDonagh’s work, including his two features and the film that Marty the character is writing. He shares that along with his name with Scorsese, whose character often find themselves in a crisis of faith. In Seven Psychopaths we see it in a Quaker who contemplates revenge, in an Irish Catholic writer who drinks to silence his demons, and in a Buddhist whose final thoughts before his last act of protest are a contemplation of revenge.

McDonagh is channeling equal parts Scorsese (Billy’s last name is Bickle, first uttered as he delivers a monologue to a mirror), Coen brothers (Carter Burwell’s score is unmistakably reminiscent of Fargo and Ben Davis’s cinematography tries occasionally to recall Roger Deakins’ atmospheric interiors) and Tarantino (a cold open features two hitmen on a job discussing the efficacy of shooting someone in the eye). The conversation in that opening not only overtly references The Godfather, but also HBO’s ”Boardwalk Empire” by casting Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg as the hitmen. Finding these little reference points can be an amusing pastime like an Easter egg hunt, but it adds up to a shoddy mish-mash of clumsily strung together ideas. It feels like McDonagh was more concerned with making a movie like other gangster filmmakers of the past than he was with using his own style that got him where he is in the first place. I’ll admit to laughing quite a bit – how could you not at some of the more ridiculous exchanges that take place. And the sudden appearance of Harry Dean Stanton as a Quaker should make any avid moviegoer chuckle. Although the violence, obviously intended to be funny in its shocking absurdity, never reaches the heights of hilarity that Tarantino achieve when John Travolta accidentally blew someone’s head apart in a car.

 One character complains that Marty’s screenplay treats women terribly, that they meet a bad end and have nothing interesting to say before they get there. There’s useful commentary to be made on that topic when it comes to the action and gangster genres, but not when the movie in which you make the comment itself treats women as plot devices and punching bags (though not of the literal kind). Abbie Cornish plays Mary’s girlfriend, a character who seems to exist solely for the men to say foul things about. Gabourey Sidibe’s presence can only be explained as an excuse to have Charlie and his henchmen make terrible fat jokes. The only woman who has any remotely interesting lines is Hans’s wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay), who has been placed in the screenplay so that Hans can get from one plot point to another.

McDonagh is better than this. Let’s hope the next time he isn’t given carte blanche and a large budget so that he may go back to making smaller pictures that have something interesting to say without all the bloating and gas. 

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