It’s hard to review writer/director Martin McDonagh’s latest film, “Seven Psychopaths,” without comparing it to his feature debut, “In Bruges” (2008), another black comedy starring Colin Farrell. While there are vast differences between them, such as setting, plot and the level of humor, certain themes pervade each film that, when compared side?by?side, make the two appear quite similar.
Set in modern day L.A., “Seven Psychopaths” takes viewers into the life of straight?guy Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell) as he strives to complete his latest screenplay – eponymously titled “Seven Psychopaths.” He has a script that he is determined to set apart from the violent films Hollywood pumps out by making it solely about peace. When his best friend and psychotic inspiration, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), kidnaps a vicious gangster’s beloved Shih Tzu as part of a dog thieving business, the pair is forced into a violent and darkly comedic journey in which every other person they meet turns out to be – you guessed it – a legitimate psychopath.
Like Marty’s screenplay and this film’s predecessor, “Psychopaths” is a movie almost wholly concerned with peace. Though it makes light of the hyper violence associated with the Hollywood of today, it simultaneously criticizes such action as a means to an end, championing peaceful protest as the righteous alternative.
Through a number of clever scenes mostly prompted by Christopher Walken’s brilliantly acted character, Hans, “Psychopaths” manages to get this theme across to its viewers, leaving them to ponder the film’s deeper points well past the finale. Yet, “In Bruges” seemed to be able to send this message in a far more artistic and poignant fashion. In comparison, “Psychopaths” comes up a bit short.
What it lacks in tact, though, “Psychopaths” makes up for in humor. “In Bruges” went about as dark as a film can go before crossing the line into a drama, but McDonagh’s follow?up pushes comedy from the start, succeeding in creating genuine, intelligent humor throughout.
Though he isn’t the lead, Rockwell is the true star of the film. Billy is a uniquely twisted character, and you can’t help but sympathize with him as he runs around in an altogether hilarious and mental fashion. Reminiscent of his cocky character, Justin Hammer, from “Iron Man 2” (2010) – albeit one who is more demented and far more capable – Rockwell achieves comedy that is dark, well?timed and wholly convincing, making the film worth viewing for his performance alone.
Add to that a slew of perfect moments from Walken and classic Woody Harrelson comedy, and there’s no excuse not to laugh.
The real reason “Psychopaths'” comedy succeeds, though, is its sharp screenplay. Writing, rather than directing, seems to be McDonagh’s strength, for the film isn’t all that visually moving. “Psychopaths” compensates by delivering a near?flawless script, full of original jokes centered on outrageous violence, amusing witty exchanges and individual voices for each character.
It’s no coincidence that this brilliant screenplay is about a guy writing a supposedly brilliant screenplay. The entire film is one ironically self?aware joke with the characters perfectly content to imagine their lives as if they were in a film. At one point, Marty comments on how refreshing it would be for the main characters of an action film to break from conventions and simply spend the latter half of the movie camping out in the desert, just talking. Sure enough, for the next thirty minutes, that’s exactly what he, Billy and Hans end up doing.
Pulling off this level of parody is no easy feat – bringing “meta” to the masses has never been simple. Yet “Psychopaths” does it so seamlessly, eliciting laughs through the use of this recurring gag without fail.
While “Seven Psychopaths” doesn’t work in every area – for instance, it’s hard to take the murderous mobster Charlie Costello seriously when he’s played by Woody Harrelson – it’s a strong follow?up to “In Bruges,” filled with enough violence and black humor to make the latter film proud. With one of the most compelling and canny endings seen on screen this year, and with powerful performances across the board, “Seven Psychopaths” is a self?referential ride worth taking all the way to the end.