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Movie Curiosities: Seven Psychopaths

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I don't remember why I passed on In Bruges when it came to Portland, but I've been paying for that decision ever since. I've heard nothing but good things about that movie, with a number of quotations as proof of the film's superior screenplay. Luckily, In Bruges was successful enough for freshman writer/director Martin McDonagh to get a second film underway. It's worth bearing in mind that In Bruges was released four years ago. That's a decent length of time for film geeks to continuously drool over the thought of what McDonagh was preparing for his sophomore effort. But now, at last, Seven Psychopaths is out in theaters. And the film is so funny, so action-packed, and so utterly batshit crazy that it's enough to make anyone a fan of McDonagh.

Before going any further, I should point out that the poster is a lie. Not all of the eponymous psychopaths are played by those actors. Indeed, some of those actors only get a few precious scenes before disappearing entirely, and only four of them are playing what could seriously be called main characters.

First and foremost is Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), who comes up with the harebrained scheme of kidnapping dogs, keeping them for a few days, then returning the dogs to their owners to collect the reward money. Billy's partner in crime is Hans (Christopher Walken), who's using his share of the funds to pay for his wife's cancer treatment. Unfortunately, they capture the Shih Tzu of a particularly sentimental crime boss (Charlie Costello, played by Woody Harrelson). Charlie misses his precious dog to a comically childlike degree, so of course he's eager to find and kill whoever took the bitch.

The bodies start piling up, Billy's best friend (Marty Faranan, played by Colin Farrell) gets caught in the middle, and hilarity ensues.

Keep in mind that this is only the bare-bones synopsis. This is what you might consider the A-plot or the central premise. It might make for an entertaining film in itself, but the movie has so much more going on. Most of it revolves around Marty, a screenwriter struggling to write his next movie. All he has on paper right now is a title, which is... wait for it... "Seven Psychopaths."

Yes, ladies and gents, we're diving headfirst into meta territory. Leave your psychiatrist at the door, because things are about to get crazy up in here.

First of all, Marty goes through the film examining several possible ideas for his cast of psychopaths and their respective stories. Some of them are inspired by actual psychopaths who bring their stories to Marty, in response to a want ad that Billy put in the paper without his friend's knowledge or consent. These stories start out strange enough, and it's very entertaining to see how they get twisted and reshaped as the film continues. Naturally, the sideplots pretty much always comment on the main plot's proceedings in some way. What's more, a few of them are given some wonderfully surprising and heartfelt endings. My personal favorite example concerns the Buddhist psychopath that Marty comes up with. Yes, you heard me: A Buddhist psychopath.

See, one of the reasons why Marty is having such a hard time with this film is that he wants to make a film with "psychopaths" in the title, but he also wants to make something peaceful and life-affirming. So it is that Marty, Billy, and Hans work together and try to reconcile these two entirely opposing notions. Not only is it very funny to watch, but the results also provide some very intriguing thematic material.

For example, one of this movie's most prominent recurring themes is race. The movie features no less than two interracial marriages, and a Vietnamese man plays a vital role in the film as well. It doesn't stop with skin color, either. Marty, Hans, and Kaya (Marty's girlfriend, played by Abbie Cornish) are all white, but the movie stresses the point that these respective characters are Irish, Polish, and Australian. The film puts a tremendous emphasis on the races and religions of its characters, even going so far as to use racial epithets as a way of reinforcing the point.

I have no idea why.

No, really. The film uses religion and race as prominent motifs, but doesn't use them to make any kind of overt thematic statement. At least, none that I could find on a single viewing. If anyone out there has any idea what the film was trying to say on this subject, I'd be intrigued to hear it.

Anyone who goes to see this film should be warned that logic isn't necessarily a given thing. The narrative tends to ramble aimlessly, there are a huge number of plot holes, and contrived events are bound to happen frequently. However, the film makes it very clear that this isn't a bug, but a feature.

Remember, the movie is designed to resemble Marty's screenplay, so one can comment on the other. Marty's screenplay doesn't have a structured plot yet, so of course the movie doesn't have a structured plot. For another thing, the characters poke fun at the movie by way of poking fun at the screenplay, often making some very interesting statements about modern cinema itself in the process (to paraphrase an example: "Your female characters are terribly written, and something bad always happens to them." "*shrug* Well, it's a tough world for women."). The meta aspect eventually gets so overwhelming that our main characters start to think that they're the heroes in a movie. As such, they expect things to happen according to Hollywood logic, with suitably comical -- and often violent -- results when things go differently.

Then again, the film's meta aspect can work as a double-edged sword. At some point in the proceedings, events get to be so impossible and contrived that it's like all the rules suddenly got thrown into a wood chipper. Logic takes a permanent coffee break, with no possible explanation given, save that the movie has somehow become self-aware. The narrative has slipped its leash, free to do whatever it pleases without any fear of consequences because it's not like these characters were ever predictable to begin with.

The main characters are all immoral and irate morons, but each character brings a unique brand of crazy. Sam Rockwell, for example, plays his character with a seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy, so Billy is effectively a maniac on a never-ending sugar rush. The guy is so insane that even Charlie -- himself a homicidal mobster, albeit one with a soft spot for dogs -- has to look at Billy and go "Dude, get a shrink!" It's much funnier than it sounds, trust me.

Don't even get me started on Billy's big scene just past the hour mark. He pitches a massive shootout for the climax of Marty's screenplay, bringing together every single character in the movie, and we get to see the whole demented thing. Everything that's great about this movie -- the performances, the screenplay, the direction, etc. -- all perfectly and beautifully intersect in those glorious and laugh-out-loud hilarious few minutes of what-the-fuckery.

Then there's Christopher Walken, who depicts Hans as... oh, who am I kidding? Christopher Walken is totally playing himself here. He's deadpan, he's creepy, and he's completely detached from the proceedings. Everything you'd expect from Christopher Walken playing crazy (for better or worse) is here. By a similar token, Tom Waits appears in this movie. I shouldn't even have to tell you that his character is a scary kind of nutso.

That leaves Marty. Not only is the poor guy Irish (read: an alcoholic), but he's the film's designated "straight man." As such, it's his responsibility to provide reactions to all the craziness going on around him. Given the quantity and variety of craziness going on around him, it should go without saying that Marty's reactions are over-the-top and very humorous.

The actors in this movie are all a lot of fun to watch, though it helps that the screenplay is a work of art. There are screenwriters who succeed at crafting realistic characters and dialogue, and then there are screenwriters like Martin McDonagh, who succeed at the exact opposite. The dialogue in this film is so witty, so clever, so funny, and so expertly crafted that I didn't even care about the fact that no one was acting or talking like a normal human being ("Hands in the air!" "No." "But I've got a gun." "I don't care." "That doesn't make any sense." "Too bad.").

What's more, the narrative in this picture is alarmingly well-crafted. This movie juggles its various subplots and sideplots in a way that's simply awe-inspiring. What's more, this film frequently deviates from the established rules of storytelling in cinema to consistently entertaining results, even if the film's oddball methods don't always make sense.

Seven Psychopaths is a very crazy film. Not nearly as crazy as Detention or Antichrist , I grant you, but it's still insane. Dealing with the film's meta elements and gaps in logic takes a lot of suspending disbelief, but the gut-busting humor and the wildly unpredictable characters keep the ride enjoyable throughout.

This is a very smart, very original, very entertaining film. Absolutely worth a look.

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