Seven Psychopaths – when too many ideas make a film go wrong…

In Bruges was a surprising hit back in 2008 about two hitmen who hide out in the small Belgian city of Bruges after a job goes wrong. It was also incredibly funny and well-written with an excellent cast, and it made a name for writer and director Martin McDonagh. McDonagh’s follow-up film to this is Seven Psychopaths, a similar comedy-drama about more gangsters and other nasty people, and people getting caught in amongst them.

Struggling scriptwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) is trying to write his next hit screenplay. Trouble is all Marty has is a title: ‘Seven Psychopaths’. His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is forever trying to inspire him…as long as he gets a writing credit as well. He is desperate to get involved with Marty’s project though, seeing as how his current career isn’t exactly what you would call honest. He makes a living by stealing dogs with his partner-in-crime Hans (Christopher Walken) and then giving them back to the owners for the reward money. But when Billy and Hans mistakenly steal the beloved dog of notorious gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson) the trouble that follows both of them, and by consequence Marty as well, might just be able to inspire Marty to write something about seven real life psychopaths…

McDonagh’s film has been met with a lot of heavy expectation following the excellent In Bruges. And for the first half of Seven Psychopaths he manages to live up to it. It’s funny and well-paced, the cast are all brilliant, and the writing is excellent. But that’s just the first half… It’s later on when the film suddenly becomes a complete mess. It becomes a self-reflective discourse in scriptwriting, as we watch Marty struggling to write his film while at the same time trying to escape the gangsters on their trail. McDonagh makes it too clever for its own good – too self-aware of the world of film with the characters discussing not only how Marty will finish his script, but how their own stories will end. While there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this idea, it becomes too bloated and the energy generated from the first half of the film quickly disappears, leaving you bored and restless of the characters onscreen talking about nothing. In other words, the entire second half becomes a discussion of how McDonagh will end his own screenplay, reflecting his own anxiety over writing his difficult second feature. But Barton Fink or Adaptation this ain’t. This idea also left me feeling slightly insulted as it feels that McDonagh is genuinely confused about what he wants to say and why, tieing himself up in knots about the subject matter he is trying to portray to the viewer.

The feel of the film also changes for this second part, leaving you with a strangely disjointed affair – the first is a quick-paced, fun gangster film with plenty of comedic moments, the second becomes a dull drama. Both separate might have worked, but the sudden change is so jarring that you pray McDonagh will return to the latter. He does, briefly for a fantasy sequence and then later for a climax…but even this overwrought conclusion feels boring. There is also a contrived plot twist halfway through that you can see coming a mile off.

That said Seven Psychopaths has some of the best and funniest performances from everyone involved. Sam Rockwell eclipses everyone whenever he’s around, creating a larger-than-life character in Billy (who also gets most of the best lines). Woody Harrelson is also in OTT mode (when is he not?) as gangster Charlie Costello and gives an excellently funny performance as well. And Christopher Walken is of course amazing as the rugged old-timer Hans as well. He also adds more of an emotional balance to the film, especially for scenes between him and his cancer-stricken wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay). Colin Farrell is also good but seems to be in the shade of the other characters a lot of the time, especially when Rockwell and Walken are onscreen. But still he manages to hold his own throughout the film. Oh, and Tom Waits pops up as an intriguing guy who carries a white rabbit around with him. Amazing.

The women in McDonagh’s film get a raw deal though, only appearing onscreen for what is collectively about ten minutes. Abbie Cornish as Marty’s girlfriend and Olga Kurylenko as Costello’s girlfriend are barely able to make a mark and don’t have much to do in the way of plot. McDonagh only makes up for this lack of female characters slightly with Linda Bright Clay who gets the chance to give a very heartfelt performance as Hans wife Myra and who actually has something to do with the story.

Overall though this film is a classic case of too many ideas being crammed into one film (comedy, drama, action, a comment on violence, and a discussion on scriptwriting and Hollywood). McDonagh’s trademark writing style of funny dialogue about nothing in particular, while it is still present, becomes too much for a boring second half in which you can guess exactly what happens in the end. The tacked on end credit scene is testament to a confused idea that doesn’t know when to stop. After the simplicity of In Bruges, writer and director Martin McDonagh has gone into overload here and while it does feature some fine, funny performances (especially from Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson) these are lost in the end to a over-complicated and problematic concept.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on January 18, 2013.

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