BEIRUT: It’s rare, but it sometimes happens that big names appear in small films. This exotic combination was a notable feature of “In Bruges.”
Martin McDonagh’s 2008 feature-film debut followed a pair of Irish gangsters sent to vacation in the eponymous medieval Belgian town while their English boss decides what to do with them.
Lightning has struck a second time with McDonagh’s – somewhat less small – sophomore effort, “Seven Psychopaths.” The film is just finishing a successful festival career after premiering at TIFF this year, and is nowadays having a limited engagement at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.
Like McDonagh’s first film, “Seven Psychopaths” is a gangster film set on the fringes of the movie business. While “In Bruges” is an homage to European art house chiaroscuro, the new film is a send-up of Hollywood, and B-movie convention in particular.
It tells the story of Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell), an LA-based Irish screenwriter who’s made a name for himself churning out the sort of big-budget gore fests upon which Hollywood feeds. With his new project, however, he’s struggling with writer’s block.
The project’s called “Seven Psychopaths” and, though he’s been working on it for long enough to make his producers impatient, he’s unable to move beyond the basic premise – that the story involves seven psychopaths. In fact he’s imagined only one of the seven, a Buddhist psychopath – who soon morphs into an Amish, then a Quaker.
Marty’s problem is that he’s tired of the murder and rapine that characterizes his oeuvre and would really rather write a story about peace and love. As he’s Irish, it’s no surprise his favored solution to this cognitive dissonance is drunkenness.
“I don’t have a drinking problem,” he tells his sidekick, and character foil, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell). “I just enjoy drinking.”
Billy is an actor whose own career arc is suffering, thanks to his short temper. As he isn’t working much, his raison d’etre nowadays is seeing to it that Marty gets his screenplay written.
He has a few suggestions to make about possible psychopaths. One is Jack O’Diamonds, a serial killer who’s been grabbing newspaper headlines because he only targets mid- to high-ranking members of the LA-area crime scene.
The audience is treated to Jack’s handiwork in the opening scene. A pair of Italian wise guys stands in a bucolic setting discussing their next job – whose specifics demand that they not only murder a woman but take out both her eyes. In the midst of their Tarantino-like discussion of the morality of the act, and the relative merits of morality, a balaclava-clad fellow strides up and dispatches both of them.
Marty concedes that Jack O’Diamonds is a great psychopath. Billy says he’s free to use it, if he’ll let him co-write the screenplay. The screenwriter is hesitant, but he later comes around to the collaboration.
In the film’s core conflict, however, Marty is only a bystander.
When he’s not losing acting parts, Billy devotes his time to another collaboration, this one with Hans (Christopher Walken), a devoutly religious man whose wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay) is suffering from cancer.
To help fund her treatment, Hans and Billy are running a small-time con. They go to LA-area parks and kidnap lapdogs, holding them until the crazed owner posts a notice announcing the rewards he’s willing to pay for the beast’s return.
This operation could sustain itself indefinitely, were it not for Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a psychopathic mobster of Irish extraction who lavishes an unseemly amount of affection on Bonny, his shih tzu (a species of lapdog). When Billy dognaps Bonny, Costello goes ballistic, turning his gang’s full resources to hunting down the thieves and punishing them.
As “Seven Psychopaths” is ultimately a movie about a screenwriter, you can safely assume that the plot doesn’t unfold in quite the way it seems it should.
Marty and Billy’s oddball collaboration leads them from Hollywood to the California desert, a road that is littered with finely drawn comic characters – including Zachariah Rigby (Tom Waits), a retired psychopath whose furry animal of choice isn’t a lapdog but a white rabbit – and B-movie plot threads that are absurdly entertaining in their excess.
Though audiences will be distracted by the A-list acting talent waltzing through “Seven Psychopaths,” the great strength of the film resides in the intelligence of the writing.
It belongs to a small and distinguished cluster of films about writing for cinema. Like Charlie Kaufman’s 2002 effort “Adaptation,” one of the most accomplished U.S. films of this type, McDonagh’s film is at its wittiest when Marty and his characters appear to be living the scenes he’s writing – or rather the scenes his collaborators are writing.
The film’s hilarity won’t speak to all audiences with equal force – obviously some find it easier to empathize with a displaced whiskey-soaked Irish writer than others. While the film’s blend of comedy and violence sends up the work of U.S. writer-director Quentin Tarantino, it is also very much of a piece with it.
Though it’s evident that “Seven Psychopaths” has been crafted by the same hand as “In Bruges,” the broad characterizations and spasms of Lynchian gore make this film much more of a guilty pleasure than McDonagh’s debut effort. Though it is populated by more female characters, “Psychopaths” is much more of a “guy flick” than “In Bruges.”
Those with little patience for this sort of thing, female audience members for instance, may take heart in the fact that McDonagh has the wit to comment on this in the film itself.
“You really need to work on your women characters,” Walkan’s character notes, looking up from Marty’s draft. “At least let them know how to string a sentence together.”
Then again, you may not.
“Seven Psychopaths” is screening at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil for a limited engagement. For more information see: www.metropoliscinema.net/category/film