Now let’s see if we can recall all seven of the killers referred to in the title. The new movie “Seven Psychopaths” has a masked killer who kills mob hit men and leaves a jack of diamonds on each corpse. Screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) reads about him in the paper.
An ad placed by Marty’s friend and would-be collaborator Billy (Sam Rockwell) brings another serial killer of killers to him, this one played by Tom Waits. He is estranged from his even more bloodthirsty girlfriend. He met her when he freed her from chains in a basement torture chamber in New Orleans.
Billy is in cahoots with con man Hans (Christopher Walken) in a dog-napping business. Unfortunately, they take a friendly shihtzu belonging to mob boss Charlie (Woody Harrelson) who kills Hans’s wife, in the hospital, as she waits for surgery.
Marty imagines a former Viet Cong whose family was killed in the attack on My Lai. This guy has come to the U.S. and is traveling the country dressed as a Catholic priest, taking revenge on the former American soldiers who were involved in that atrocity. For some reason this serial killer is always seen with a tall Anglo hooker.
I’m not even through with the list and already it seems hard to figure how they can all fit into one story, doesn’t it? The complicated “Seven Psychopaths” was written and directed by Martin McDonagh, an Englishman (born of Irish parents) who made a splash as a playwright before turning to film. He wrote and directed Farrell in “In Bruges” in 2008.
That was also a movie about the humanity of murderers. But “Seven Psychopaths” is oddly personal, a movie about a guy trying to come up with ideas to use in writing a movie. Marty’s notion is to start with the title, then generate the psychopaths. It is Billy’s idea that the climax of the film should be a big shoot-out between the forces commanded by the surviving title characters. Most everything leads to that climax.
This sort of new pulp is not new to film, of course. Combining it with detached, intellectual schemes involving multiple stories (remember “Pulp Fiction”?) and self-conscious narrators isn’t really new, either. It seems like whole graduating classes of the Naropa Institute have each published novels with technical plots and imaginative killing of the sort we find in this movie. Remember the story about the man who awakens in a hotel bath tub, packed in ice, and discovers he has been waylaid so someone can steal his kidney?
What’s surprising about “Seven Psychopaths” is how much it depends on Rockwell. Walken, Harrelson, and Farrell are all dependable actors. Rockwell is a quirky genius. He started out in The Equalizer t.v. series in the late 80s and has appeared in Ninja Turtle movies, horror films, crime dramas and things odder in tone than that, in “Charlie’s Angels,” as game show host Chuck Barris in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” opposite Nicholas Cage in “Matchstick Men,” and as the villain in the second Iron Man movie.
The “Seven Psychopaths” cast—including Abbie Cornish, Linda Bright Clay, Harry Dean Stanton, and Gibourey Sidibe (from “Precious”)—are all talented and energetic and a lot of fun to watch. They keep “Seven Psychopaths” from becoming just another exercise in gore and metafiction. Without their performances, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this movie.
Did we ever get to seven in our count? I didn’t think so. But “Seven Psychopaths” does. And just when you think it has used all of them and the credits have begun to roll, one comes back to haunt Marty. That last second fillip is a miniature recapitulation of the film.