Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Directed by Martin McDonagh

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Seven Psychopaths is the second of McDonagh’s three films, after In Bruges and ahead of this year’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  If you like Three Billboards you probably also like Seven Psychopaths and vice versa.  McDonagh clearly has a distinct sensibility, something like the combination of comedy and violence seen in a Shane Black movie, but this film is a bit of a mess.

Now, I feel the same about Three Billboards, a film I found quite entertaining but collectively scatter-brained.  Both of these films have exciting moments, vivid characters and noteworthy violence, but it is all jammed into a loose structure that has no single direction.

In Bruges, on the other hand, does much better what these latter two films aim for.  That 2008 film is a dark comedy about a suicidal hitman, and these latter films are just as much about suicidal, vengeful characters whose penchant for violence is like a labrador’s instinctual need to eat everything around them.

Okay, I’m writing myself in circles already.  I don’t like Seven Psychopaths, but I feel like I should.  There are a ton of great actors and a pulpy, entertaining plot, but it’s just such a… mess.  The characters aren’t as good as the actors playing them, and the violence isn’t senseless but a little too random.

The lack of any structure is yada yada’d here by a character who continually references that they might just be in a movie.  When they pass a certain landmark, Sam Rockwell’s Billy says it would be a great spot for a shootout, and sure enough that’s where the shootout takes place.  Earlier they will seemingly avert danger only for Billy to use a flare gun to alert the antagonist of their presence in order to keep the story going.  It’s fine, I suppose, but it’s less of a winking nod to action movie tropes than a lazy catalyst to keep the story going when it hits another dead end.

The story is concerned with the friendship between Billy and Marty (Colin Farrell), an alcoholic screenwriter who is working on a script called “Seven Psychopaths.”  The movie introduces us to these psychopaths, some real and others fictitious, but there’s no rhyme or reason to when or how we meet them.  First we’re introduced to a local serial killer.  Later we see the story of one particular vengeful psychopath as it is told by Marty.  After that we will see a story as recounted by the man who lived it (played by Tom Waits).

These stories are a combination of actual occurrences, memories and made up stories.  They are visually exciting (and gory) and thrown into the story whenever the plot slows down.  Because of the constant jumping from story to story, the movie never has any real momentum.  In fact, after one notable death the three protagonists just jump ship and hideout in Joshua Tree.  It makes for a nice set piece and an engaging sequence of conversations about death, religion and whatnot, but it seemingly occurs outside of the thrust of the movie.  Did the story write itself into a corner?  Well that’s when Billy comes into play and alerts the bad guy where they are.  Boom, we’re back into the story.

Seven Psychopaths is like a wandering dog on a thirty foot leash.  The dog strays too far, so you tug on the leash and eventually get him back on track.  That’s the best image I could think of.

The cast also includes Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Gabourey Sidibe, Abbie Cornish, Michael Pitt and Stuhlbarg and Harry Dean Stanton (RIP), but the characters are such broad characters that they feel incredibly underserved.  Sure, the actors get to go big, but they are cartoonish without anything to ground them.  This is in stark contrast to the character played by Colin Farrell in In Bruges, a comic relief character whom we learn is deeply haunted by a mistake in his past.

McDonagh’s films are marked by violent, reckless characters made witty and amusing because of a disregard for their own lives.  They don’t care about anything, and this makes them a little more cool than all of us.  This is certainly the case in Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards, but something is missing here.  The story is too damn serious and deadly to be a straight comedy.  Though we’re meant to laugh in many instances, the consequences are ultimately too severe.  In Psychopaths, for example, one character’s innocent wife, in the hospital as she deals with cancer, is shot point blank through the head.  It’s pretty awful, but it’s mostly swept under the rug so we can get to the end of the movie.

I think this is why I don’t latch onto these last two films.  They go big without grounding themselves, and that is unlike In Bruges, a film I adore.

In In Bruges, the protagonist’s character arc is to decide he wants to live.  He’s suicidal and understandably so, but by the end, whether he gets to or not, he chooses life.  It doesn’t matter what happens to us, in a sense, but rather what we make of our situation.  In Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards, the characters all don’t mind death.  Sure, Mildred in Three Billboards has a haunting backstory, but up until the end she chooses violence, and while there is a point there, it doesn’t quite land, for me.

That seems so pretentious, to say ‘for me.’  This movie didn’t work ‘for me.’  Who cares?  No one’s trying to please me, I’m just one dissenting voice in a see of people as important or as unimportant as me.  Anyways, it’s so easy to get caught up in your own point of view, and when someone challenges you it’s easy to become more and more rigid in your perspective.  I think this, oh you think the opposite?  Well now I definitely think this.

Maybe I’m missing something.  I think Three Billboards at least aimed a bit higher than this movie.  There is a heart to the story that McDonagh is trying to capture, but I still don’t think he got there.  He’s adept at creating engaging characters and an exciting plot, but it’s just so scattered.

I left both movies wanting more and I suppose expecting more.  Whereas In Bruges was a more intimate story, told between two protagonists, these last two films are much more sprawling, dealing with a wide ensemble of characters almost just so that McDonagh can provide the shock value of killing them off along the way, like a season of The Walking Dead.  And perhaps that’s part of what bothers me.  It mattered what happened to the two hitmen in In Bruges because we cared.  It doesn’t matter what happens to the characters in these other two movies.  Their deaths are more of a spectacle than something meaningful.

So that’s what it is ‘to me.’  McDonagh’s first film provided a spectacle that added to the sincere, surprisingly heartfelt story at its core.  Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards emphasize the spectacle and barely address what’s at the center of the movie.  We’re told what drives these characters, but we don’t get a chance to feel it.  That being said, this is a movie about psychopaths, so maybe that was never an option.

Up Next: Up (2009), Marnie (1964), Michael Clayton (2007)

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