If you think you know what Seven Psychopaths is about, you have no idea what Seven Psychopaths is about.
Having watched all the trailers and being a huge fan of director Martin McDonagh's first feature In Bruges, I figured I knew what I was getting myself into. There's the crime angle, the quirky characters (Tom Waits steals the show as a psychopath who really loves his rabbit) and the fantastic use of Colin Farrell, so what else is there to want? It turns out that all my expectations left me in a worse situation going in than someone who had never heard of Seven Psychopaths, because the movie I thought I was going to see and the movie I saw were two completely different things.
It starts off as the movie we see in the trailers: Farrell plays Marty, an Irish writer who’s having difficulties with his screenplay Seven Psychopaths. He’s friends with Billy (Sam Rockwell), an actor who works on the side as a dog kidnapper with a man named Hans (Christopher Walken). But things spiral quickly out of control when Billy and Hans steal the wrong man's Shih Tzu -- in this case, that of gangster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who admittedly loves his dog more than his girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko, who only gets about one and a half scenes).
If that's the premise, then it's not the story. The story itself is Marty's and Marty's alone as he tries to discover who his seven psychopaths are and how they fit together. His attempts to temper his screenplay with introverted thoughts about love and life are constantly hijacked by Billy, who wants to co-write the script and turn it into Scarface 2. One of the best scenes comes when Billy describes his dream ending for Marty's script: a shootout that’s hilariously and wonderfully bloody and incorporates all of Seven Psychopath's characters, real and fictional.
In an interview in February with Entertainment Weekly, Farrell described McDonagh's inspiration for Seven Psychopaths by saying, "Martin does get as bored as any of us do at some of the shit that comes out of Hollywood." Well, Seven Psychopaths definitely isn't boring. It’s funnier than In Bruges was but plunges to the same levels of darkness, and uses its larger ensemble of actors to create wonderfully developed, colorful characters that are full of life and pathos.
Farrell, Rockwell, Walken and Harrelson are at the top of their game, and even the supporting cast pulls out all the stops. However, it's important to note the criticism of Marty's failure to make good use of his female characters applies to McDonagh as well. They either die or are barely used, or both. Except for Bonnie the Shih Tzu, of course, who gives Seven Psychopaths an endearing center that In Bruges didn't have.
But the film loses itself in its desire to be meta. The argument can be made that McDonagh wrote Marty and Billy to be the two parts of his psyche, with their debates and the constant wishy-washy tone of the script representing his struggle to bring it to life. There are scenes like the one in which Billy tells Marty he can't have a scene where his characters sit in the desert and talk about life for 20 minutes before McDonagh has Farrell, Rockwell and Walken do exactly that. McDonagh gleefully watches his movie spiral out of control for the fun of it, and then sort of manages to bring it all together for a grand, fitting finale. It's like Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, except it doesn't work quite as well.
That said, Seven Psychopaths is great. It's funny, it's dark and it's violent. It makes great use of its fantastic cast, and it reinforces that McDonagh is one of the greatest voices around. Maybe the problem is that I had too many preconceived notions of what this movie would be going in. It's not In Bruges, and it's not the movie its trailer portrays. It's McDonagh's exploration of screenwriting and the Hollywood system, maybe based on his own personal struggles or maybe inspired by his own frustration with other scripts he's seen turned into movies. Typically that wouldn't matter, but Seven Psychopaths relies so much on its extra-narrative context that it loses itself as a movie somewhere along the way.
My advice: Don't watch any of this film's trailers (despite how great they are). Don't look at any of its posters, because the seven psychopaths defined there don't match up with the ones named in the movie. And, whatever you do, go in anticipating a wild ride that won't go where you expect it, because that's how you'll have the most fun with this film.
Seven Psychopaths opens Oct. 12.