Review: Sam Rockwell and Chris Walken soar in seriously silly ‘Seven Psychopaths’

Martin McDonagh’s film “In Bruges” was one of those tiny movies that many audiences simply didn’t notice when it was released, but the people who did see it ended up devoted to it.  The film’s reputation has grown in the last few years, helped in large part by McDonagh’s work on stage, and now he’s once again working with Colin Farrell.  The result, “Seven Psychopaths,” is perhaps the most interesting implosion of narrative convention since “Adaptation,” and it works as a comedy first and a commentary on the entire idea of violence as entertainment.

Marty (Farrell) is a screenwriter who is struggling to figure out his new script, a piece called “Seven Psychopaths,” and as the film opens, pretty much all he has is the title and one of the psychopaths.  His best friend, Billy (Sam Rockwell), wants to help him with the script.  He’s convinced that Marty is a great writer and that “Seven Psychopaths” could be a great film.  The problem is that Marty wants to write a movie about lunatics, but he wants to find a way to do it without violence, sending a message of peace that will be uplifting, and Billy’s pretty sure that’s going to be impossible.

At the same time, Billy is involved in a dognapping scheme with Hans (Christopher Walken).  They pick up a dog, wait until the owner has posted a reward, and then return the dog as if they just found it.  At any given time, they’ve got five or six dogs put up in their makeshift kennel, and Hans seems to really enjoy the day to day care of the dogs.  He uses his part of the money to take care of his wife, who is suffering from cancer.  It’s a low-impact life of crime, and everything seems to be chugging along perfectly.

Then Billy snags a shih tzu named Bonny, the beloved pet of Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), a degenerate criminal, and all hell breaks loose.  While Marty may want to write about psychopaths, he’s not prepared for what happens when Billy’s business venture suddenly lands them at the heart of this insane whirlwind of dangerous and unpredictable people.  Billy also takes out a personal ad that attracts the attention of other psychopaths, and the result is a really wild ride, hilarious at times, while it also manages to comment on itself thanks to the constant debate about Marty’s script and what it means and what’s going to be in it.

This might be one of the best Sam Rockwell roles ever, just because of what a perfect fit it turns out to be.  Billy is a force of nature, completely off the rails, and he seems to savor the entire script, savoring every word.  The same is true of Christopher Walken, who manages to be hysterically funny at times but also hits some very true and painful notes of melancholy.  The two of them are such huge personalities that it would be easy for a lesser actor to get steamrolled in the part of Marty, but Colin Farrell absolutely stands his ground with them, scoring plenty of big laughs on his own.  There’s also a slew of nice supporting turns from the cast, with Woody Harrelson doing great work and Tom Waits almost walking away with the film in what essentially just adds up to two sequences.

I like Ben Davis as a cinematographer.  His work on films like “Kick-Ass,” “Stardust,” “Franklyn,” and even “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” marks him as a distinct visual artist whose work has a more interesting texture than much of the slickest of Hollywood’s product.  As the film plays with what is real and what is part of Marty’s script and what is imagined, Davis is careful to match his work to the moment, giving the film a very distinct sense of style.  The same is true of Carter Burwell’s score, which recalls my favorite work of his with the Coens.  Even the make-up effects by Greg Nicotero are played for very smart laughs, and there are a few gore gags that left me breathless from laughing.

If I have any complaint, it would just be that the film doesn’t have a deeper emotional resonance.  Still, when you’re playing a self-aware game like this, that’s not really the point.  It’s a well-crafted film, and if you’re willing to play the game that McDonagh’s laid out, it’s a really rewarding experience.  I found myself howling at even the production design, but if I gave you specific examples, I’d rob you of the joy of seeing them for yourselves.  Suffice it to say “Seven Psychopaths” is the sort of comedy that will reward repeat viewings, dense with both verbal and visual humor, and smart about the way it deconstructs itself even as it plays.

“Seven Psychopaths” arrives in theaters October 12, 2012.