A Strange Review: Seven Psychopaths


Here’s the problem with something called Seven Psychopaths: you pay your ransom of a ticket, another $350 for confections, you sit through more movie trailers than there are actual vehicular trailers, you try and glean the dialogue through all the whispering and giggling and texting and sexting, and you walk out the door thinking to yourself —

There was one psychopath too many.

But then again, what can’t you say that about? You go to work. You go to a wedding. You go to a baptism. And you walk out thinking —

There was one psychopath too many.

Nevertheless, I thought to my own self, how bad could this film be? I mean, it has Christopher Walken. And psychopaths. And the writer-director is the brilliant Martin McDonagh, author of the terrifying The Beauty Queen of Leenane as well as the award-winning screenplay In Bruges. As some of you know from my references elsewhere on this blog, I love Irish and Irish-American drama — Synge, O’Neill, O’Casey. (Forget Shaw, Goldsmith, and Sheridan, whose Anglo roots or pretensions ruined them.)

The real Irish took the language that was foisted upon them, kneaded it through the crucible of their history, and sent it back into the world carrying the burden of their dreams, re-tuned with an incantatory lilt that is unmistakable and immediately identifiable. At their best, the Irish rank with the ancient Athenians in their ability to amplify a sense of almost preternatural foreboding, as if the ceiling were about to crash down on your head; the oppressive affliction that can be both family and faith; the weight of an ineluctable and evil fate.

At it’s best, Irish drama will mess you up for life.

And McDonagh is true to his heritage, crafting characters whose lives are forever soiled by choices thrust upon them, or bad juju fed to them with their mother’s milk. Who better to write about psychopaths?

You could say it’s the Psychopath’s Moment in the culture. We have Anders Breivik and KSM and Dexter and the elections. There’s even a new book out called The Wisdom of Psychopaths. This guy over at the Daily Beast delivers this flatfooted assessment:

The science behind all of this is fairly intuitive. Psychopathic traits have been given the Darwinian OK throughout the history of human evolution, which helps validate Dutton’s argument that these qualities can be pretty important tools if properly used. The “seven deadly wins” of psychopathy that he identifies (ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action) are all arrows we want in our quiver. And come to think of it, they also happen to be the very character traits that engage and—dare I say—inspire us when we find ourselves shamelessly hooked on whatever cadaver-filled cable drama is animating our vicarious lives this week.

But Dutton’s assertion that we can learn from psychopaths might be a bit of stretch. It’s a provocative thesis, to be sure. But by pushing this line a bit too hard, he sometimes falls victim to the pervasive habit among popular psychology writers to turn every insight into a self-help strategy. Fortunately, that doesn’t make his treatment of the subject any less interesting.

You can scroll through the rest later, but frankly the review reads like a 12-year-old’s report on a book that should never have been assigned in the first place.

With all that said, I decided finally to suck it up and check out the 11:20 showing of Seven Psychopaths, which fit in nicely with my Saturday-morning ritual at Panera Bread, which consists of waiting for Mr. Panera to get back to me about my suggestion for a new kind of bread, called simply “bread.” I mean, I get to the counter, and suddenly I’m in a Monty Python sketch.

“May I help you?”

“Yes. I’d like some bread, please.”

“Well, we have rye, amaranth, kamut, pumpernickel raisin, whole wheat, multigrain —”

“Just bread. I’d like some bread.” Which I don’t consider an unreasonable request. Given that the word bread is in the establishment’s name.

But she looks at me like I’m a psychopath.

Speaking of which.

Where was I? Oh, yes —

So Martin (Colin Farrell) is an Irish screenwriter living in Hollywood and suffers from a wee bit of a drinking problem. But you knew that. Well, everyone else in this story does, and it becomes something of a running joke, except to his girlfriend, who abandons him after a particularly garish exchange. Martin’s latest script is called Seven Psychopaths, and isn’t he having a time coming up with seven worthy of screen time.

Martin’s best friend (sorta kinda) is Billy (Sam Rockwell), who has a whole bunch of ideas of his own for Martin’s screenplay. For example, how about a psychopath who just takes out “middle-to-high-ranking members of the Italian-American Mafia. Or the Yakuza.” It’s almost ripped from the headlines, as the real Seven Psychopaths, the one we’re watching, starts off with a bang, as two hit men staking out a female mark are themselves offed by the masked “Jack of Diamonds” serial killer.

Who is this killer of killers? Will he or she make it into Martin’s script?

But the Irishman’s at a crossroads, both spiritually and as a writer. He doesn’t want to craft just another shoot-em-up action flick. He wants to explore other themes, like peace and love and reconciliation. So a Buddhist would be a counterintuitive kind of psychopath. As would someone who’s Amish. Or a Quaker.

A story about a Quaker who hounds the born-again-in-prison murderer of his daughter is definitely a winner with Martin. The question then becomes, was the story Martin’s? Or Billy’s?

Or was it Hans? Hans (Christopher Walken) is a 63-year-old con artist who steals dogs in upper-crust neighborhoods only to return them to grateful owners for fat cash rewards. His wife, Myra, to whom Hans is absolutely devoted, is stricken with cancer, and begs Hans to get a job that “just ain’t stealin’.”

“Doin’ what?” Hans asks.

“A gov’mint job,” she replies.

“Gov’mint. A job that just ain’t stealin’. Gov’mint.”

Yeah, we get it.

Turns out Hans is friends with both Martin and Billy. In fact, is that shih-tzu Billy carries around with him one of the fancy dogs Hans has stolen from a would-be psychopath named Barney (Woody Harrelson)? Barney is certainly convinced it is, and has his henchmen chase down Hans and Martin to the kennel where the dogs are kept until it’s time to return them to their rightful owners. But before the bad guys (or, I should say, the badder guys) can put some metal in Hans’s and Martin’s heads, who walks in like the Lone Ranger, or Zorro, or the Green Hornet (take your pick) but the Jack-of-Diamonds killer, who offs Barney’s twosome and disappears into the Southern California scenery.

Well doesn’t this provide more fodder for Martin’s imagination? It seems you can’t throw a rock without hitting a psychopath in L.A. They soon start knocking on Martin’s door. Seems Billy, in another attempt to co-write Martin’s screenplay, has taken out an ad out in the trades: “Wanted: Psychopaths.” One day Tom Waits shows up with a bunny rabbit in his arms and a story about how he and his wife decided to hunt down and murder serial killers.

But wait? Could this be the Jack-of-Diamonds killer? Could he be the Jack-of-Diamonds killer?

And of course there’s the Vietnamese “priest” who hires a hooker to help him blow up a veterans’ conference as part of a long-simmering plot to avenge the death of his family in the My Lai massacre. But is he real? Or part of a dream sequence Martin’s cooked up? Which psychopaths are in Martin’s head and which one’s are coming after him and his friends?

“This story has a lot of layers,” Hans says at one point.

Indeed it does. Worlds within worlds. But it all comes together as Martin, Hans, and Billy try and resolve this strange screenplay within a screenplay. Will it end with a bloody shootout, as Billy hopes, with Barney and his crew as the villains who ultimately bite the dust, literally in the desert? Or will Martin find a way to end the bloody cycle of vengeance for his psychopaths — both real and imagined?

And why did Billy steal Barney’s dog?

At first you’re likely to analogize this Matryoshka doll of a plot to a Quentin Tarantino film — Pulp Fiction comes to mind immediately. But it wouldn’t be right. Yes, there’s a lot of funny repartee, and even some pop-culture references, which are Tarantino’s forte. But McDonagh always has more on his mind. There’s a lot of religion here too.

“Hans is an old-time Christian,” says Billy. “Not like those Fox News f–ks.” Hans often comforts himself with thoughts of heaven, especially in light of his beloved Myra’s health problems. But at a signal point in his spiritual life, he begins to doubt the existence of an afterlife. What if there’s no heaven, but just a great, gray room? A terrible place.

“Like England?” asks Martin.

“Not that bad,” replies Hans.

Hans asks Martin if he believes in heaven.

“I put a lot of heaven and hell in my stories. But I don’t know what I believe,” he says. This is the real writer, Martin McDonagh, talking about his own work certainly. Despite the farcical elements and absurd characters, the subtext of his scenarios is always whether there is such a thing as redemption in this life and the next, especially when you know you’ve done the very worst thing in the world and can’t quite wipe the blood off your hands.

Some may be made uneasy by how easily Christian talk sits side by side with foul language and brutal action, but I don’t believe McDonagh intends this as a slight or a smackdown but has caught on to how easily Americans have worked pious chatter into worldly matters. And in the hands of a less-gifted writer, you wouldn’t care a lick about these goony, self-destructive characters. But McDonagh doesn’t let you off the hook by distancing yourself from their absurd predicaments. Sure, the stupid shih-tzu that crazy Barney coming for is a MacGuffin, you know, a device to bring all the wackjobs into one room. But Jesus is here. Real sacrifice. Real self-giving. There’s a charm and a pathos to these lunatics. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. There should be another story where these characters reside, one without all the cursing and the gore and the pointless death of loved ones. But this is where their maker has placed them.

So, do they lay down their guns, or do they fight for their lives? “Gandhi was wrong,” says Billy. “It’s just that nobody’s got the balls to come out and say it..”

No one will ever say that about Martin McDonagh. Not politically correct, he. Women are not treated very well here, but that’s actually part of the discussion Martin has about his own screenplay. When Hans points out how quickly the females are killed off, Martin becomes defensive. “Women have it hard in this world,” he says in explanation

“Yeah, women have it hard,” replies Hans. “But I know some who can at least string a few syllables together.”

I wouldn’t be too quick on the trigger to guess at McDonagh’s politics, however. No right winger, but no bleeding heart either, is my surmise. He’s his own thing. An empathetic realist, perhaps.

Also real is the big-boy language of this film, which is appalling. Not quite Kevin Smith “OK, I’m leaving the theater now” appalling, because not explicitly sexual, but Quentin Tarantino as fed to David Mamet appalling. And there will be blood. Lots of it. And explicit scenes of violence, as in throat cuttings and head blastings.

And there are boobies.

If that’s a no-go for you, don’t go.

But I was in awe of what McDonagh was able to wring out of such B-material. It’s not the stuff of Oscars, perhaps, but the performances dance very close. Walken is a wonder as he bing-bongs dialogue with the unpredictable cadences of a man just learning the language. His Hans is lost somewhere between heaven and earth, and you believe him when he speaks of Jesus as Lord, even though the very next second he’s mouthing something grossly profane. Farrell is a perfect stand-in for the real Martin, a poet who can also be a bastard. Woody Harrelson is a potent mix of dog-loving eccentric and sociopathic killer.

But Sam Rockwell is from another planet. His performance is tailored to be as surprising as his character, and you want both to hug him and shoot him alternately.

So I guess what I’m saying is, I was wrong. There wasn’t one psychopath too many. It seems we’re all psychopaths of one kind or another, often because we’re blind to the ones in our very midst. At least that’s what Martin — both the character and the filmmaker — seems to be saying. Judge not lest ye be judged crazy too.

McDonagh should know. Only a psychopath could have fashioned this fantastic farrago of a tale.

May his tribe increase.


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