Friday, September 28, 2012

Review: "Seven Psychopaths"

Director: Martin McDonagh
Runtime: 109 minutes

A wild, meandering, and darkly funny ride through LA, Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths may be a lesser film than In Bruges, but it is satisfying on its own terms. Ultimately, the Irish writer/director's second feature film lacks the legitimate pathos and hard-hitting laughs of his 2008 film. However, if Psychopaths is less funny, it is also considerably more interesting from a narrative standpoint. In Bruges took the hit men in hiding concept and executed it with McDonagh's fresh mix of dark comedy and bloody tragedy. Psychopaths, however, starts out as a caper-gone-wrong, yet takes some surprising turns and becomes increasingly meta, with enormously entertaining and unexpected results. 

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a struggling screenwriter in LA, who is trying to put together his next project. It involves seven psychopaths, although Marty has only been able to come up with one. Desperate to help him is his long-time friend Billy (Sam Rockwell). When he's not trying to help (or hinder) Marty's writing or chastising him about his drinking, Billy also runs a dog-napping business with the pacifistic Hans (Christopher Walken). Unfortunately, just as Marty is starting to get his screenplay going, he gets dragged into Billy's shenanigans after Billy steals a dog belonging to a rage-prone mobster (Woody Harrelson). 

But, as the characters later reflect, that's just the beginning. There may be cliches in Seven Psychopaths, but unlike so many other crime films, McDonagh's is self-aware, and never in an obnoxious way. McDonagh's screenplay doesn't afford his characters the same level of hilarious dialogue that In Bruges  did, but there is certainly meaty material for the cast to dig into. Rockwell and Walken fare best, and McDonagh wisely gives both of them plenty of  dialogue to have a blast with. Rockwell is reckless with a twinkle in his eye, and has fleeting moments of sadness and disappointment which the actor skillfully brings to life. And Walken manages to overcome potential typecasting as an eccentric weirdo to deliver an actual performance. Not only is he effective at navigating the comedy and tragedy of McDonagh's script, but his pronunciation of the word "hallucinogens" is worth the price of admission. Like Rockwell's work, Walken is playing an oddity as far as characters go: he's rounded, yet not terribly deep. That description applies to the film as a whole as well, yet somehow it's not a bad trait in this case. 

Yet as broad as the characters are, it's in these two roles (of the main ensemble) that McDonagh is able to inject the hint of something deeper. Seven Psychopaths has the interesting ability to create a sense of drama out of thin air without feeling forced. This is, after all, a crime film, which means there's plenty of bullets fired and lives taken. So even though much of the film is ultimately a rather surface-oriented dark comedy, McDonagh still makes his characters worth caring about, even if we're not deeply invested in them.

Other roles are nicely handled as well, though none really have the meat of Rockwell and Walken's roles. Farrell, as the audience stand-in (and also something of a stand-in for McDonagh), is stuck being an observer for so much that he isn't really given anything to push him. I still think that Farrell and McDonagh make a perfect actor-director pairing, but hopefully their next collaboration (assuming it happens) gives Farrell material more in line with In Bruges to work with. Instead, Farrell probably comes in fourth among the cast (third place to Woody Harrelson's one-note anger/menace). Not far behind are a series of killer cameos and side roles (including a rabbit-toting Tom Waits) who only add to the meta-ness of the enterprise. 

Coming in last, as part of a bit of the film's commentary on gangster movies, are the main female roles, filled out (in form only) by Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurlyenko. Thankfully, In Bruges showed that McDonagh has no aversion to good female characters (hell, even the pregnant hotel manager in In Bruges was good), because he certainly isn't doing his ladies any favors here. McDonagh does acknowledge the point of their limited and empty roles, and he actually prevents the weak female presence from becoming a weird, sexist hindrance (and there is some nice work from female cast members...just not the listed ones). McDonagh is commenting on the weakness of female characters in crime films, and he's smart enough to avoid portraying all women as weak as part of his "commentary." 

Because, above all else, what's on McDonagh's mind isn't so much commentary as a look at story-telling and narrative cleverness. In ways that are too funny and surprising to spoil, Seven Psychopaths is a blood-stained love letter to the creative process, even as it sends up traits of an entire cinematic genre. As previously demonstrated by films like Hot Fuzz, a film that mixes satire and sincerity can often transcend its genre. That's certainly the cast with this film, which rises above being just another crime film by at times refusing to be a crime film at all (or at least delaying inevitable scenes). And it's in these detours that the film becomes the most surprising and engaging. This is a film where one can only guess a character's fate in his or her last minutes (or seconds), but not several acts before. 

And in addition to being well-written, directed, and acted, the production values aren't too shabby either. The cinematography nicely captures the sun-baked Los Angeles vistas, while still allowing for a wide range of colors to exist in the frame. The editing is also a marvel, and it keeps the story flowing with clean, precise cuts that keep even the still scenes on their toes. The lone letdown is, perhaps, Carter Burwell's score. It's appropriately low-key and fits the film perfectly, but unlike Burwell's work on In Bruges, it possesses no moment or theme that allows it to become something more than generically effective. 

What's ultimately most impressive about Seven Psychopaths is how well it succeeds on its own terms. Narrative cleverness takes precedence over character development, but McDonagh never overreaches. The film's impact is lighter than that of In Bruges, both as comedy and tragedy, but there is no feeling of disappointment once the credits roll. This is a film (and script) that is comfortable with itself, and as such, is able to turn its overall lesser quality into a striking advantage. Deeper, richer films are likely in store for us over the coming months. That said, I have no doubt that, at year's end, Seven Psychopaths will stand as one of 2012's cleverest and most satisfying, depth or no depth. 

Grade: B+

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