The dog kidnapping business goes horribly wrong for Billy (Sam Rockwell) and Hans (Christopher Walken) when they kidnap the dog of a psychopathic local mafia boss. Unusually for a Mafia boss (played by Woody Harrelson), he has a cute, fluffy Shi Tzu, is incredibly attached to it, and will stop at nothing to get it back. This does not bode well for Billy and Hans, nor does it fill Colin Farrell’s alcoholic writer, Marty, with joy, when he is sucked into their predicament.
It does however, provide Marty with a certain amount of inspiration for his next screenplay, entitled Seven Psychopaths. At the beginning of the film, he has merely the title, but as the story progresses, his story progresses, as he writes his film Seven Psychopaths within our film Seven Psychopaths.
Ah, the film within a film, we have a meta-narrative on our hands. Well, it certainly doesn’t screw with your mind in the way that Synecdoche New York did, but it plays cleverly with the idea without ever becoming convoluted or tired.
For example, upon reading the screenplay that Marty is writing, Christopher Walken’s Hans points out that his female characters are one dimensional if they exist at all, badly written, and mostly wind up dead. When he says this, he might as well be looking straight down the lens of the camera at the audience, because he is talking about what we are watching too. But does pointing out this feature of the film, suddenly making it “meta”, and therefore OK to not have any decent female characters? Does Sam Rockwell stating that you can’t kill the cute animals in a film but it’s fine to kill women give us a laugh that we’re in on, or does it just negate having to actually provide a strong female character?
Although at this point a mention should certainly be given for the excellent cameo appearance by Gabourey Sidibe, (best known for Precious), as a girl being interrogated and terrified by Woody Harrelson’s mob boss. She is the unfortunate soul that lost his beloved Shi Tzu Billy, and centre-piece of a very funny scene.
Ah, the film within a film, we have a meta-narrative on our hands.
The back-stories of Hans and Tom Waits’ Zachariah do provide some genuinely heartfelt moments of pathos, even if these are often swept away moments later by a well timed gag. The role of Zachariah is so suited to Tom Waits that it seems to have been written for specifically for him, as he tells a harrowing tale of redemptive violence so beautifully that it could have come from one of his songs.
Sam Rockwell’s infectious enthusiasm for the dog kidnapping business and later for Marty’s screenplay is nicely juxtaposed with his business partner Hans’ (Christopher Walken) quieter, more world-weary, seen it all demeanour. This is one of those films in which Rockwell is given something of a free-license to run amok, as we saw in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or as Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He is a fine actor is his own right, but it is these sort of roles in which we see the live-wire and unpredictable performance resembling a young Jack Nicholson come to the surface.
Irish director Martin McDonagh, who is also vastly respected as a playwright, seems to have something he wants to say about the Vietnam War, judging by this and some of the dialogue in his previous film In Bruges. It is Colin Farrell’s failed assassin in In Bruges that brings up Vietnam for no particular reason, and in Seven Psychopaths there is an entire side-plot revolving around a mysterious Vietnamese man out for revenge who makes up one of the seven titular psychopaths. Still, this odd diversion seems somehow to fit in with the plot’s ever twisting narrative, and lends to a riotously entertaining action-comedy.
Seven Psychopaths is in UK cinemas 5th December