by Padraic Coffey
There’s a lot to be said for choosing the right name. Quentin Tarantino is a case in point. Reservoir Dogs, his debut, could not have been lumbered with a more clumsily opaque title (its alleged origin is Tarantino’s inability to pronounce French wartime drama Au Revoir Les Enfants while a video store clerk). However, almost no one criticises ‘Reservoir Dogs’ as a title because the film to which it is attached was so exceptionally well-made. Fast forward to the latter stages of Tarantino’s career and a title like Inglorious Basterds (cribbed from an Italian war film), which sticks in the craw if you prefer the more, dare it be said, restrained days of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Likewise, if you are going to name a film Seven Psychopaths, it had better justify such on-the-nose labelling.
Fanciful titles are not all that is shared between Tarantino and Martin McDonagh. The acclaimed London-Irish playwright and filmmaker has a penchant for graphic violence, as displayed in cinematic debut In Bruges and Oscar-winning short Six Shooter, on top of stage works such as The Pillowman. To say his latest lives up to their excess is a supreme understatement: decapitations, immolations, stabbings, throat-slashing, countless shootings – how Seven Psychopaths escaped without an 18 certificate from the BBFC is mystifying. Sadly, the film in which these grand guignol episodes take place is neither as clever or funny as it believes itself to be, and fails to deliver on the promise of In Bruges.
In Hollywood, Marty (Colin Farrell) is a hard-drinking Irish screenwriter, afflicted with writer’s block on his overdue opus, ‘Seven Psychopaths’ (McDonagh’s self-reference does not end there). Most of his time is spend procrastinating with actor friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who subsidises his income by abducting pets from wealthy owners and returning them for a sizeable reward through partner Hans (Christopher Walken). When the Shih Tzu of volatile gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson) is among Billy’s targets, it ignites a series of events that will leave Marty plenty with which to fill his screenplay, but several corpses strewn along the way. Amidst this central narrative there are flashbacks, dream sequences and tangential asides involving ski-masked hitmen, interracial vigilante couples and Tom Waits carrying a rabbit.
If all this sounds messy, that’s because it is. In Bruges may have had it detractors, but few would argue with the beautiful simplicity of its storyline. Though heavier on dialogue than anything else, Seven Psychopaths‘ intricacy does slightly betray McDonagh’s theatrical roots. He cannot seem to structure this film as well he might a play, and so we move erratically between the hills of Los Angeles to a remote desert, where much of the third act takes place. The poignancy of In Bruges is also absent, bar Walken’s relationship with his cancer-stricken wife, and even that concludes in a manner which is frustratingly implausible. No doubt McDonagh intended the film to be a treatise on pacifism or some such lofty subject, with references to Gandhi, Buddhism and Vietnamese monks, but any subtext is buried amidst all the gore.
The cast at McDonagh’s disposal also feels squandered. Christopher Walken appears not to be acting, but doing an impersonation of himself. His verbal tics and mannerisms are straight out of a lousy impressionist’s act. Rockwell, one of the most watchable actors of his generation, is solid, and provides the film’s biggest laughs, though Farrell overstretches. Harrelson’s gangster is a trope in itself, the killer whose kryptonite is a fluffy animal (for other examples, see Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs). Towards the end, Walken questions Farrell’s commitment to his initial screenplay idea. “Psychopaths get kind of tiresome after a while, don’t you think?”. By the end of Seven Psychopaths, you may well agree.