Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Theaters: SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)

(UK - 2012)

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh.  Cast: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Zeljko Ivanek, Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey Sidibe, Michael Pitt, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kevin Corrigan, Linda Bright Clay, Long Nguyen, Brendan Sexton III. (R, 110 mins)

Writer/director Martin McDonagh's follow-up to his acclaimed IN BRUGES (2008) again demonstrates his deftness at mixing the comedic and the dramatic and doing so without jarring or uneven shifts in tone.  SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS adds a "meta" element that's somewhat reminiscent of Shane Black's 2005 cult favorite KISS KISS BANG BANG (a great film totally abandoned by its distributor).  With rare exception--KISS KISS BANG BANG, for example--self-reflexive meta films of this sort tend to exude a certain air of smugness about them, almost as if the filmmakers are too busy marveling at how preciously clever they're being.  For the most part, McDonagh does a good job at keeping that element in check, but it doesn't always work as well as it should, or as well as McDonagh thinks it is.  Contrary to what the trailers, TV spots, and poster art are selling, this isn't exactly the wacky comedy about a ragtag group of criminal miscreants that it appears to be.  It's *A* film like that...just not the one being advertised.

In Hollywood, hard-drinking Irish screenwriter Marty (McDonagh's IN BRUGES star Colin Farrell) is having a hard time finding inspiration for his latest script, titled SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS.  He's got one:  the Jack of Diamonds serial killer, who happens to be going around wiping out mobsters and leaving a jack of diamonds card behind.  Marty's best friend Bobby Bickle (Sam Rockwell) is an out-of-work actor who makes a living in a lucrative scam with aging, dapper, cravat-wearing criminal Hans (Christopher Walken), where Bobby kidnaps a dog and after a few days, Hans returns it to the owner for the reward.  Things spiral out of control when Bobby kidnaps Bonny, a Shih Tzu owned by hot-tempered, trigger-happy crime boss Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who thinks nothing of killing anyone who gets in the way of him retrieving his beloved dog.

That's the essential "plot," and that's where a typical Hollywood points A-to-B-to-C story would focus.  But McDonagh takes things in unexpected directions with various sidetracks and detours as he cinematically demonstrates the stages of the writing process as Marty and Billy (who wants to help write the script) brainstorm and the film turns into a running commentary on itself.  These are tricky waters for a film to navigate.  If it's done right, it's brilliant.  If it's not, then it's pompous and insufferable.  SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS isn't brilliant as a whole, but it seems headed that way for the first half.  It's filled with sharp writing, witty and profane dialogue, great characters, and inspired situations that often border on silly but are immensely enjoyable.  McDonagh weaves together hilarious comedy, devastating drama, and some surprising scenes of shocking violence with confidence and energy, but once Marty suggests, instead of a big shootout, the characters in his script should just go to the desert and talk, that's exactly what McDonagh has his characters in the film do.  While it's nice watching Farrell, Rockwell, and Walken explore these characters and give them added dimensions, there's no denying it kills the momentum for a while.  There's certainly an argument that subverting that expectation of a big shootout (which we eventually get) is McDonagh's whole point, but it's the only time the film threatens to become one of those meta movies where the winking gets a little forced and you start to feel like the filmmakers think the material is beneath them.  There's some good stuff after this section, but SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS never returns to being as entertaining as it was for that first hour.

Even if it doesn't quite hang together all the way through, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS does boast a terrific ensemble cast.  Rockwell has rarely been better, and Hans is easily Walken's best role in years.  Whether he's doting over his cancer-stricken wife (Linda Bright Clay), making odd facial expressions, or saying things like "Fuck the cops!  Fuck 'em!" in ways that only he could say them, Walken turns in a marvelously inspired "Christopher Walken"-y performance that's great fun to watch.  Rockwell and Walken are the standouts, but Farrell and Harrelson do fine work, and there's also memorable supporting turns by Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, and, of course, Bonny the Shih Tzu.  SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS functions on multiple levels and is the kind of film that probably requires more than one viewing to catch and process everything.  It's one of those films where subsequent viewings will likely bring other things to the surface to enrich the experience.  I certainly enjoyed enough of it to pick up the eventual Blu-ray and spend more time studying it in greater detail.  It's just that kind of film.

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