Too self-aware to follow through on Lynchian overtones and too batshit bizarre to be a gleeful, man-fest in the vein of Guy Ritchie, Seven Pyschopaths is a tonally difficult film that succeeds only up to the point you are willing to sit back and let it do its thing. The second feature by Irish playwright-turned-filmmaker, Martin McDonaugh, Psychopaths has much of the brash, dark humor that made In Bruges so charming. However, the ensemble cast of characters splits the focus in multiple directions, thus diffusing the endearing humanity that grounded In Bruges in an unexpected way. Instead, one silly bit just leads to another silly bit like an unraveling ball of yarn.
Martin (Farrell) is a typical alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter trying to find inspiration for his new screenplay called “Seven Psychopaths.” When his good friend Billy Bickle (Rockwell), a spit-fire type, and Hans, a kind-hearted old thief with a wife in the hospital, enter Martin’s world, the entire thing goes up in a string of chaotic falling dominoes. Bickle gets mixed up with a ruthless gangster named Charlie (Harrelson) when a scheme to rob his dog goes awry. After Billy shoots Charlie’s wife, the three friends and the dog must escape into the desert to hide. While there, they work on finishing Martin’s screenplay and brace for the inevitable showdown with Charlie’s gang.
The thread of the screenplay being written within the film would seem to be the lynchpin upon which the rest of the threads would fit. I have to assume that was the intention. Yet, the random sequence of events that spiral around the arbitrary screenplay never actually fit together. Instead, Seven Psychopaths plays out like many Tarantino/Coen Brothers style long dialogue scenes where moments will inevitably end in narrow escapes or violence. Without the gravitas of drama built around the black comedic moments, almost all of these sequences fall on the side of farce. The film seems to want to get at greater themes of peace, harmony, revenge, and the afterlife, but it has such a giddy time with bloody nihilistic bravura that it doesn’t argue all that well for anything more than a frat party collision of sex, drugs, and killing.
Had the structural problems of the film been ironed out, it would still possess the fatal flaw of overstuffed characters. Almost all the actors (with the notable exceptions of Walken and Rockwell) exist as types or caricatures instead of well-defined humans. Paired with the chaos of over-written plot, there’s a cartoonishness that starts to run thin at about the time that they make the 45th reference to Martin’s alcoholism. Perhaps a charming concept in short form, Psychopaths runs out of steam before it really has any steam gathered at all. Part of the problem is that the script Martin’s writing isn’t built out of any internal need of the character to begin with, therefore how the film plays out to reflect the ways he achieves a successful script are steeped in no real stakes. Martin’s a passive protagonist who brings us into the world but never seems to either participate inside of it or creatively observe it (like any good artist should).
This is all not to say Seven Psychopaths is without its exciting moments. In fact, taken as short sketches, the film has a way of being quite fun. Anchored by an outstanding performance by Rockwell, the actors have loads of chemistry. Part of the untethered nature of the film comes from the improvised feeling of the moments. Again, in short bursts this spontaneity, as when Rockwell continuously repeats lines with befuddlement, can be exhilarating. Walken, like Rockwell, seems to be existing on another plane than the rest of the movie. Not that he’s too good for the material, just that his existence in this world is too bizarre to be believed. Even for Walken, this performance is a sight to behold.
Sam Rockwell steals almost every moment he’s on the screen. Sadly, his performance has flown under the radar this year, much like Rockwell’s under-appreciated career in general. But I have a hunch people will give this one attention come awards season. He may even get some Oscar buzz. Rockwell invents moment-to-moment excitement and nervousness that single-handedly carries the narrative. I can’t imagine sitting through this film without Rockwell’s brand of impulse. I don’t know if I can think of another performance that made an otherwise poorly conceived film as fun and watchable as Rockwell made Seven Psychopaths. In fact, I’d predict this movie will have an interesting life on home video. The reason will mostly be because of the scenes that Rockwell dominates.
At times Seven Psychopaths can be a great time, usually because of how giddily it displays absurdity and violence. Ultimately, the film has far too much going on with too little a cohesive thread to be very enjoyable as a whole. In segments – the ones that are conceived as long form sketches of “how far will this shit actually go” – it plays as a fun throwback to Tarantino and mid-90s Brit quirk. Other than that, only one truly excellent actor gives the film any sense of potency. But there are so few memorable parts of cinema these days that just the revelation of a performance can be enough to make a film worthwhile. For the creators of Seven Psychopaths, they should be happy Sam Rockwell took the part. [C+]