I may just have a new favorite film for 2012 with Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths. Oh, I had high hopes and expectations based on McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008), but I wasn’t prepared for the pure joy he delivers with this magnificent tapestry of a movie. I’ve called it a “crime comedy-drama,” but that hardly does this richly layered work justice — even if it does suit the film in one sense. The thing is that this is much more than that simplistic reduction suggests. Yes, it’s about crime — some big, some not so big — and a lot of it is very funny, and there’s an undercurrent of drama, but it’s also a movie that’s as much about friendship and love as it is about anything. (In a way, that makes it very like In Bruges.) For such a violent film, it’s surprisingly touching. But there’s even more to be savored here. This is also a film about the movies themselves and it’s as densely and deceptively structured as a Charlie Kaufman screenplay — yet it has a flavor that is distinctively McDonagh’s own.
It’s called Seven Psychopaths — and it boasts at least that many, maybe more — but its name came from the title of a screenplay that Marty (Colin Farrell) is at least supposedly trying to write — and by that I mean he has come up with a title and maybe one psychopath of the requisite seven. The thing is, he may have more psychopaths at hand than he realizes. The film establishes itself as a deconstruction of movies of this genre in its first scene where a pair of dullard hit men (Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg) chatter on so intently about whether or not John Dillinger was shot through the eyeball that they fail to notice that they’re about to become victims of an assassin casually approaching them from behind. This really has very little to do with the film (except in one sense we won’t know for some time), but its offhand and very bloody — yet essentially comic — violence announces both the film’s tone and the fact that we’re in for a film that subverts its own purported genre.
The crux of the film lies in Marty’s attempts to write his screenplay, while his best friend, Billy (a brilliant Sam Rockwell), insists on trying to help him — much to Marty’s consternation. It is through Billy, however, that Marty becomes involved with the majority of the movie’s psychopaths — in part because he get mixed up (quite unwittingly) with Billy’s dognapping business. Billy and his partner in canine crime, Hans (an equally brilliant Christopher Walken), specialize in stealing dogs and then returning them for the reward — a fairly lucrative proposal until they accidentally (maybe) steal a dog belonging to a truly pscychopathic crime boss (Woody Harrelson), who wants his beloved Bonny back — and revenge in the bargain. That forms much of the film’s plot, but gives no idea of the flavor or the complexities of its digressions, side roads and imaginings of other things that often relate to the idea of Marty’s evolving screenplay.
It would do the film a grave disservice to reveal much about the twists, turns and byways it travels. The poster and the trailer hint at some of these (why, for example, does Tom Wait’s character have a rabbit?), but tell you very little specific — and neither will I. I will warn you that, yes, the film can be — and frequently is — extremely bloody and violent (sometimes commenting on whether or not what we’ve just seen is believable) and that’s going to be off-putting for some viewers. (This should surprise no one who saw In Bruges.) But if you’re up to it, this is one of the most gratifying, witty and intelligent films of the year. I singled out Rockwell and Walken for praise, but really all the actors are superb. Rated R for strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.