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Seven Psychopaths Review: A Movie About Failing to Write a Movie

By / 10.17.12
Do you know how hard you have to work to make me dislike a movie about Christopher Walken in a cravat?

Laremy loved Seven Psychopaths and it hurts my soul when he and I disagree, but Laremy, you ignorant slut, consider this my rebuttal.

On paper, this is a movie I should love. The guy from In Bruges directing a group of my favorite actors in a hyperviolent, metatextual riff on screenwriting. In reality, aside from a few clever lines, a brilliant Christopher Walken impression from Christopher Walken, and a very cute dog, Seven Psychopaths felt like watching two grad students pee on each other for 90 minutes. Martin McDonagh wrote and directed it himself so I don’t pretend to know who the second pee-er might be (perhaps a fictional McDonagh alter-ego a la Adaptation?), but what I do know is that this was a clear case of a writer needing a director who was not himself.

First of all, Seven Psychopaths is a subtext movie. It’s not the screwball comedy they’re trying to sell you in the previews – which is fine, because whatever movie they’re trying to sell you in the trailers looks pretty shitty. And I’ve liked quite a few subtext movies – Adaptation, Scott Pilgrim, Kick-Ass – movies where the action on screen is supposed to represent a character’s stylized version of the reality of the movie. In Seven Psychopaths, all the action you see is meant to represent the movie that Colin Farrell’s character – an Irish, alcoholic screenwriter, presumably a stand-in for McDonagh – is trying to write. It’s a movie about a character in the movie writing the movie we’re now watching. Writing about writing, get it? That might strike some as hopelessly fart-huffing, but I love a meta movie if it’s done well.

The key distinction here is that Adaptation was a story about a writer overcoming obstacles in order to write a movie, complete with a triumphant, ridiculous, over-the-top final act after Charlie Kaufman learns to embrace the tenets taught to him by Robert McKee. Seven Psychopaths is essentially about a writer’s failure to write a movie. I don’t doubt Martin McDonagh’s talent, but I’m not convinced this is ever a worthwhile endeavor. Seven Psychopaths definitely doesn’t make the case for it. The problem is, none of the scenes mean anything. They’re all just cynical critiques of writing techniques cleverly but pointlessly laid bare by McDonagh with no forward momentum. Farrell will complain “I don’t want to just write another film about people with guns in their hands for some reason!”

Cue people with guns in their hands for some reason.

Fine, but what do you want to write? At one point, Rockwell points out that Farrell never writes any female characters who aren’t corpses or eye candy, which leads to a wildly sarcastic scene with a hooker who’s also doing volunteer work and studying at Yale. It’s probably the funniest moment of the movie, but the whole thing is a digression. Who is this fictional hooker from the fiction of the fictional Colin Farrell and why should we care? The whole movie is a digression.

Adaptation is likewise a movie about a guy having a hard time writing a movie, but at least Charlie Kaufman had the balls to overtly use himself as the main character. Here, we’re left to wonder who Colin Farrell’s character is, basically for the entire movie. Also, Charlie Kaufman got hired to adapt an orchid book and he was under a deadline. We’re never sure why McDonagh has to write Seven Psychopaths. Why do we want to watch you fail to write a movie no one’s forcing you to write in the first place?

The scenes of yappy dialog and overreacting in the trailers is accurately depicted (and again I stress, these are some of my very favorite actors). There’s this particularly bad habit of Mamet disciples in hipster theater to overwrite clickety clack dialog between two characters needling the shit out of each other over some aspect of society, a style older psuedo-intellectuals just eat up like so much arugula and white guilt (see also: Carnage). But you watch a scene like this (almost always a boring two shot), and it’s a dialog that never happens in life, occurring between two characters who aren’t even listening to each other. It’s painful to watch because it’s so unrealistic, and more importantly, just listing two vehemently opposing view points isn’t a perspective. It’s Crossfire. It’s a copout. It’s two actors winking and gunfingering each other. They’re not characters, just two props for a writer’s peacocking. I have a high tolerance for cynical nihilism, but Jesus Christ, shouldn’t there be some kind of emotional connection in art? You at least owe us perspective.

Martin McDonagh isn’t a dummy, he seems to mean these actorsy back and forths as some kind of meta critique on actorsy back and forths. There’s just nothing to hold onto here. It’s got brains, but no heart, or balls. The meta-narrative has no foundation. It’s ALL over-the-top weirdness as critique (though the weirdness is occasionally entertaining). You have to create an expectation before you can defy it. The key to every good subtext movie is clearly laying out what that subtext represents. In Scott Pilgrim, each silly fight scene was Scott Pilgrim fighting some aspect of his childish insecurity. In Seven Psychopaths, basically every scene is over-the-top unrealistic and you’re not really sure why. There’s no narrative movement between the first scene to the last, just a series of false starts. It’s a big ball of nothing wrapped in cool actors and a cute dog. It’s overtly a big ball of nothing wrapped in cool actors and a cute dog, and McDonagh seems to want to be congratulated for that. I didn’t get it.

GRADE: C

Alternatively, The Guard, directed by Martin’s brother John Michael, was fantastic.


TAGSchristopher walkenColin FarrellMARTIN MCDONAGHreviewsSAM ROCKWELLseven psychopathsWOODY HARRELSON

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