By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on Movies: Seven Psychopaths
SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Martin McDonagh, 2012
1. Here’s to Sean O’Casey
Psychopaths, and I say this from experience, are people who tend to do what they want, no matter what the cost to others. I suppose you could say the same thing about Hollywood movie-makers: all those fine, reckless ladies and gentlemen living high in their land of grandiose, violent, glamorous fantasies and semi-eternal youth, their vast sound stages and bustling blocked-off location streets, their movies full of gunfights and car-chases and seductions and bad-mouth four-letter word duels, their mock-elegant deal-making show biz haunts and their backstage playrooms of Olympian sexuality. Name me a psychopath who wouldn’t want to be a Hollywood player, or at least want to play with them awhile. And then, name me all the Hollywood players with a yen to talk, or write, or act like psychopaths or hooligans, who want to wave a gun and spit out that four-letter dialogue, until it burns our ears in the seats.
2. Here’s to Flann O’Brien and Neil Jordan
Martin McDonagh mixes those two worlds (“real life crime” and the movies) con mucho gusto in Seven Psychopaths, a lively dark comedy about the perils of being an Irish screenwriter named Martin, writing a crime thriller screenplay called “Seven Psychopaths” in modern L. A., where your best friend is a psychopath, and at least six other certifiable psychos are hobnobbing around. Included in the septet: a serial killer who kills other serial killers, a Buddhist priest hell-bent on setting himself ablaze and also trying to deal with the hooker in his hotel room, and a murderous gang boss incensed because his pet Shih Tzu has been dog-napped — by other psychopaths.
3. Here’s to William Butler Yeats and The Abbey Theatre Players
The seven psychos and the some of the people around them are played by a pretty formidable line-up of marvelous actors: Colin Farrell (as screenwriter Martin), Sam Rockwell (as his best-friend-actor and would be collaborator Billy Bickle), Woody Harrelson (as gangster/dog-lover/stone cold killer Charlie Costello). Abbie Cornish (as Martin’s understandably discontent main squeeze Kaya), Olga Kurylenko (as Charlie’s girlfriend Angela, who has a side job), Christopher Walken (as the gentle, stylish, cravat-wearing, Decalogue-alluding dognapper Hans Kieslowski), Linda Bright Clay (as the self-sacrificing Myra), Kevin Corrigan (as Dennis, one of Costello‘s thugs), Tom Waits (as bunny-loving, killer-killing serial slayer Zachariah Rigby — and find me a better character type than that for Waits), Harry Dean Stanton (in a perfect Harry Dean Stanton type: a vengeful Quaker), Long Nguyen (as the Vietnamese Buddhist priest), Christine Marzano (as the hooker), Gabourey Sidibe (as the cruelly harassed dog walker), Zeljko Ivanek (as Hollywood denizen Paolo) and Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg (as Larry and Tommy, two hit men who aren‘t around long).
And, of course, there’s Bonny the Shih Tzu, playing herself, the golden apple of Charlie Costello‘s jaundiced eye. She’s a looker, but she’s not the best dog movie actor, not while The Artist’s Uggie is around, retired or not — and her breed name triggers a few too many Shih Tzu double entendres. But then, not every movie pooch is a Benji.
4. Here’s to Eugene O’Neill
That’s sixteen characters (and one Shih Tzu) altogether, including the four psychopaths we already mentioned. You’ll just have to figure out who the other three psychos are yourself, or wait until McDonagh shows one of them in the movie, and flashes the title “Psychopath One” (or whatever) on screen. There are some surprises. But I’d go see a movie with any three of the seven actors playing actual psychopaths in this one, in a trice. Or a movie just with Chris Walken and any two others, even the dog. (And Walken doesn’t even give the best performance this time; Sam Rockwell does.) This is one hell of a cast, and every one of them does an excellent job, including the ones who get killed quick and the ones who don’t speak a line — and especially including Colin Farrell, who, as the writer, has to play straight man and do reaction shots to everyone else. He’s fine too, though author surrogates are often second-rank roles, even in “Long Day‘s Journey into Night.”
We sometimes ignore how much having terrific actors and terrific dialogue helps make a superior movie, perhaps because most movie dialogue these days is so second or third or even seventh-rate, and we‘ve gotten used to it. But McDonagh, the writer-director of In Bruges (2008), with Farrell, and Brendan Gleeson — and also a prize-winning Irish playwright, when he’s not mucking around Hollywood — writes dialogue that can sing like a bird and punch laughs from your gut and slit open a vein of sadness and pour whiskey down your throat and warm your heart, sometimes in the space of three minutes. Whatever else you can say or complain about in this film — say, maybe, that seven psychopaths are three too many for a non-psychopathic audience — you can’t say the show doesn’t have better-than-good lines and wonderful actors to say them.
5. Here’s to Luigi Pirandello and Famous Ray
You can probably tell from that description that Seven Psychopths has a lot of Quentin Tarantino influence, even though writer-director McDonagh names two other directors as his favorite cineastes: the lyrical and sometimes violent Terrence Malick and the lyrical and almost always violent Sam Peckinpah. (Not another Martin? Not Scorsese?) McDonagh’s movie is one of those “meta” things, like Adaptation or Scream, in which we know the characters are in a movie, and maybe they know it too, and the movie is about how life and art and reality and the movies, and the concession stand, are all the same thing . You could even plausibly re-title this show, borrowing from Luigi Pirandello, “Seven Psychopaths in Search of an Author.” But as the man says, it doesn’t fit on a marquee or in the demographics. (If you’ve never heard of Luigi Pirandello, I’ll tell you that Luigi’s thin crust pizza, with sausage and anchovies, was better than Famous Ray‘s.)
Anyway, this is what happens: The on-screen author of Seven Psychopaths, full name Martin Faranan (Farrell), has this title for a script he wants to write: “Seven Psychopaths,” natch. But the only real psychopath Martin seems to know to aid his research is his crazy pal Billy Bickle (Taxi Driver allusion, of course), who always has a crooked grin to creep you out and who has put an ad for his buddy in my old paper, The L. A. Weekly. That ad asks any people of the psychopathic persuasion to contact the following address (or link perhaps to email@example.com).
Meanwhile, we see some psychoes who may or may not be in Martin’s script already. Dreams? Movie stuff? But the real murderous mother lode opens up when Billy and his partner in the dognapping business, Hans (Walken), dognap Bonny the Shih Tzu. (The two of them make a respectable living stealing dogs in comfortable if not 1% neighborhoods and then turning them in for the rewards). That’s a blunder that brings down the icy-eyed wrath of Bonny’s owner/adorer/real bad guy, Charlie Costello (Harrelson). It makes Charlie’s neck tattoo blanch and drives him to insult people viciously, repeatedly pull out his malfunctioning designer’s gun and use (or misuse it) to threaten and send good people or bad (Charlie doesn’t care) straight to hell. Or maybe Heaven. Or Purgatory. Or Pasadena, perhaps. Or County Mayo. (Ask the Buddhist priest.)
6. Here’s to Liam O’Flaherty and John Ford
Soon. seemingly nonstop shootouts and a string of killings are underway, reminding us ’70s cinephiles of Badlands and The Wild Bunch, and giving Martin more material than he probably wants, and Farrell more reaction shots and double-takes than he probably needs. But Seven Psychopaths calms down, just about the time Martin‘s script is supposed to, and the show turns into a mellower, deeper conversation piece, with Martin, Billy and Hans wandering around and gabbing (with that same tough-eloquent whiskey-flavored dialogue of McDonagh‘s), while hiking in the barren desert of Joshua Tree National Park (I’ve been there, it’s scary) and other hot spots, some artificial. That Same Old Shih Tzi is with them, nestling in Billy‘s arms. And streaking toward them in his muscle car is Charlie Costello, malfunctioning gun in hand, or in the glove compartment.
Well, what did you expect for a climax from this show? “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn?” “Frankie, yer mother forgives me?” (He stretched out his limbs in the shape of a cross. He shivered and lay still.) “Let‘s Go. Why not?” “Days of Auld Lang Syne?” “Impetuous! Homeric!”
7. Here’s to James Joyce and John Huston
(Belly up and begone, boys.)
This is a smart movie, and a violent one, and occasionally a touching one, and all the actors in it seem to be having a hell of a good time, even if they’re Psychopath No. 16 or so, and they’re basically just walking on to get whacked. Ben Davis’ cinematography here has a richly detailed gleam to it, a crisp action movie style put to better and more intelligent use than usual. (Davis also photographed, to his credit, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.) The music, by Carter Burwell, has a Coen Brothers ring. And I take it back: Walken is better than Rockwell, But just by a hair (or a cravat). And Rockwell has the better part. Harrelson is fine too; cold eyes, cold heart, hot trigger finger. At least one of them should easily earn an Oscar nomination for their work here (supporting actor), though the movie’s high body count may kill chances for all of them.
All that violence has killed or maimed the film with some critics too. But I think we should be glad for any movie display of intelligence or artfulness or heart, even if a little blood gets spilled, and only stage blood at that. So maybe we should call these particular kinds of films, these smart, artful, movie-obsessed neo-noirs (like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction), “Tarantinos.” Or maybe Scorseses? Tarantino is funnier than Marty, but he came later, and his stories aren‘t as deep or as human. One thing is sure: Whatever they are, Tarantinos or Scorseses or neo-neo-noirs, this is one of the best of them. The best Tarantino since In Bruges, maybe. Or the best McDonagh since The Guard.
The aforeentioned Famous Ray’s pizzeria doesn’t make anything better, and I know whereof I speak. That was my daily lunch for two years in the early ‘80s when I lived on the Bowery and in the East Village. I loved it, especially that thick Famous Ray cheese. And you know, I bet I must have seen at least seven psychopaths, or wannabes, there every week or so. But that was New York City. Where it’s not as cold as Dublin (I guess), and people don’t live as far apart as they do in L. A….