Metafiction is a tricky business. If a film is too self-referential, it’s easy for it to come off as smug, or in love with itself. Perhaps the best (or at least my favorite) piece of metafiction is Charlie Kaufman’s ‘Adaptation,’ starring Nicholas Cage in what I maintain is one of the greatest performances ever. ‘Adaptation’ is about the writing of ‘Adaptation,’ and it’s quirky, fun, and intelligent. Now imagine it was a violent gangster film, and you’re starting to have some idea of what Seven Psychopaths is like.
The second film by Martin McDonagh (whose debut, ‘In Bruges,’ is absolutely incredible), Seven Psychopaths is about a screenwriter named Martin writing a film called ‘Seven Psychopaths.’ Starting to detect a pattern here? His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Billy’s partner Hans (a stellar Christopher Walken) are in the dog-kidnapping business, and when they steal the wrong gangster’s (Woody Harrelson) dog, Billy sees it as an opportunity to provide Martin with some inspiration for his script, in the form of encounters with actual psychopaths.
McDonagh has plenty to say about violence in films, and the nature of revenge in our entertainment, and while the message can get a bit muddled at certain points in the film, it always manages to be entertaining in the process. At several points, Billy or Martin take us on little detours into the story of some fascinating psychopaths (including Tom Waits in an awesome extended cameo), which at first seem like fun diversions, but gradually weave into the larger tapestry of the film. Martin (the character, not the real one) doesn’t want his movie to just be about violence and revenge, but as the movie barrels towards it’s inevitable desert climax, we the audience are asked to question how we want this story to go.
The thing about ‘Seven Psychopaths’ that immediately stands out before you’ve even seen it is how awesome and bizarre the cast is, with who’s who of unusual favorites. Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken really hit it out of the park here, as two very particular kinds of psychos. Billy is a man who does horrible things for the sake of his best friend, and Hans is a pacifist with a violent past. Walken is hilarious here, but he’s also asked to shoulder a lot of the emotional weight of the film, which he does beautifully. He has a monologue near the end of the film that cracked me up and moved me in equal measure.
Colin Farrell is not an actor that I often enjoy, but under the direction of McDonagh he transforms his usual smug Irish bravado into a twitchy (still-Irish) nervousness that propels him through the film with good one-liners and a relatable problem: Creative stagnancy. Unable to come up with a movie about seven psychopaths, all it ultimately takes for him to have a breakthrough is to be in a movie about seven psychopaths.
Seven Psychopaths is certainly meta. At one point a character even yells ‘This movie ends MY way!’ However, if you’re willing to allow it some flexibility in it’s relationship with reality, there’s tons of great stuff here. I’ve read a lot of people saying that they thought the film ran off the rails in it’s second half, but in my opinion, that’s where it finds it’s soul. The first half is an enjoyable enough revenge flick, but once the film focuses on the relationships (between Martin and Billy, Billy and Hans, the fictional film ‘Seven Psychopaths’ and the real one), it becomes something unique, but perfectly in keeping with the rest of McDonagh’s work (An accomplished playwright, the relationship between fiction and reality is one that has always fascinated him).
Violent, witty, touching, and profane, Seven Psychopaths is another success by a director who seems unwilling to recognize that a divide exists between comedy and drama. Like In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths wants to make you laugh and cry in equal measure, preferably at the same time. It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a movie this much, and if you enjoy gangster flicks, movies about hollywood, or just crave good ol’ metafictional fun, then this is the movie for you.