At the centre of SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is a movie within the movie…a movie that in many ways employs the plot of the bigger movie. As the screenwriter struggles to write his ending (and middle…and beginning…) one of the characters asks why the film can’t end with three people going out into the desert to talk? Why does it need to have pyrotechnics and Mexican stand-offs? Why can’t the film find the maturity and intelligence to settle the situation the way ‘real life’ would settle the situation?
Maybe because ‘real life’ seldom involves a kidnapped shih-tzu.
SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is the story of Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter whose case of writers block is affecting his relationship with his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish). and vice versa. His latest screenplay has a title – Seven Psychopaths – but not much else.
Marty is friends with Billy (Sam Rockwell). Billy wants to be there for his friend, mostly because he really wants to be a Hollywood screenwriter. While his offer to help Marty is sweet, Marty is reluctant to take him up on it because of any or all of the following:
- Billy would be moonlighting as a screenwriter during his off-hours from his day job as a dog kidnapper.
- Billy’s script ideas aren’t really all that good.
- Billy is nuts.
When a film is as clearly self-aware as SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is, it gets a very narrow margin of error. Go too far with any meta humour, and suddenly the film feels like it’s mugging, winking, and taking a sledgehammer to the fourth wall. However, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS employs a trick that allows it more latitude. By getting its characters to write the film as it continues to play out – and more importantly, point out its shortcomings – it disarms the critique before it even starts. It’s the difference between listening to Billy’s story ideas and thinking to yourself “That’s pretty dumb”, and hearing Marty tell Billy “That’s a pretty dumb idea, Billy” and saying to yourself – “He’s right, that is a dumb idea!”. In getting the film to point out its own shortcomings, it points the focus back to its strengths.
Besides being clever, the film allows its cast to do some wonderful things in their roles. It’s easy to be the clown (even easier when you relish it the way that Sam Rockwell does), but very difficult to be a good straight man. The role is less glamorous and difficult to hold on to when surrounded by buffoonery. Ever tried to get some work done when your whole office is in screw-the-pooch mode? That’s the challenge a straight man faces. To this end, Farrell is killer. He ramps up his incredulousness and exasperation with the situation every now and then, which acts as a safety valve. Those moments aside though, Farrell deserves a lot of credit for lobbing the alley-oop passes all game that Walken and Rockwell take to the hoop.
They make a great trio, and play well off all the psychopaths they meet and conjure up…because they themselves are psychopaths. Billy and Hans are clearly nuts, yet sometimes when we listen to them speak we get the impression that they’re nuttiness knows no depths. So if they’re that crazy (and they are), what does it say about Marty for hanging out with them and working with them. What does it say about Angela who is smitten with both Billy and Charlie? Maybe crazy isn’t as crazy does, but in fact crazy is the company it keeps. “Psychopath” might be a harsh word, but clearly everyone in this film has issues…which is what makes it so funny and so crazy. By the time the gunfire stops, the psychotic overtones have folded in upon themselves more times than an origami swan.
Oh, and one other thing this movie understands about psychopaths? Let a psychopaths speak long enough, they’ll eventually start to make sense. If you’re smart, that’s the moment you walk away. Wanna guess how smart most of the characters in the film are?
What it all amounts to is a film that spends a lot of its run time teetering, but never flipping over. It’s bloody (deceivingly so), twisted, clever, warm, and very funny. It allows both Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken to do what they do best, with Walken’s character given the added bonus of being the film’s compass.
Why can’t three guys go out to the desert and talk? It turns out they can, and they do, but having them ‘just talk’ assumes that they – and anyone who wants something of them – are well-adjusted, mature, grown-ups. By now it should be pretty clear that nobody in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS is well-adjusted or mature, and very few of them act like grown-ups. And y’know what? That’s OK. That desert conversation might have been subtle and textured…but were it to conclude like that, it would be like having mac and cheese for dinner followed by a dessert of raspberry mousse.
We want this film to end with a deep fried Snickers bar. And it has no hesitation in giving us what we want.