There are fluffy bunnies and pretty doggies in “Seven Psychopaths.” Also torture, immolations, throat-slittings, point-blank execution-style shootings and stabbings in various parts of the body. And on top of it all, the titular septet of lunatics. Or maybe more than seven. Or less. It would be telling too much to go into the details.
Irish playwright Martin McDonagh made a splashy feature debut as the writer-director of 2008’s “In Bruges,” which mixed brutal violence with dark humor and a testosterone-heavy brand of word jazz that felt reminiscent of both David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino without seeming to be ripping off either.
This, his sophomore effort, sees the filmmaker slip a bit down a self-referential rabbit hole, but since he’s abandoned neither the witty verbiage nor the gunshots to the face, it's still a bloody hoot. It’s not as lean and streamlined as “In Bruges,” but it manages that neat trick of eliciting simultaneous laughs and screams.
Colin Farrell stars as a screenwriter named Martin who’s got a title for his new script — “Seven Psychopaths” — but nothing else. Drinking too much and ejected from the home of his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), Marty hangs out with his actor pal Billy (Sam Rockwell). Billy doesn’t get a lot of gigs, what with his tendency to punch directors at auditions, but he’s got a somewhat lucrative side job stealing dogs and then returning them to their distraught owners for reward money.
Billy’s accomplice in this venture is Hans (Christopher Walken), who is devoted to his wife, to Jesus and to ascots. Business is good for Billy and Hans, until the day they make the mistake of kidnapping a shih tzu belonging to Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a crime boss who definitely qualifies as one of the film’s title characters.
The plot just scratches the surface of what’s going on here: I haven’t even mentioned Tom Waits as a reformed serial killer of serial killers or Billy’s and Hans’ contributions to Marty’s unfinished screenplay or the masked murderer running around Los Angeles who leaves a Jack of Diamonds in his victims’ hands.
“Seven Psychopaths” juggles all these threads and more, along with inside jokes about filmmaking. (Hans tells Marty his female characters are underdeveloped, a charge that could be aimed at McDonagh.) And while the film-within-a-film stuff never becomes overly precious, the constant reminders that Billy and Hans are characters in a movie — or, at least, they will be when Marty finally finishes his script that’s at least partly based on them — eventually leave the audience feeling distanced from the material.
We cared about the gangsters in “In Bruges” because they both lived up to and defied stereotypes about movie criminals; the characters here do the same thing, but because of the ongoing discussion about movies and screenwriting, they become smaller than life and not larger.
Even so, McDonagh has assembled a cast that really knows its way around lines like, “The Spanish have bullfighting, the French have cheese and the Irish have alcoholism” and, “You’re the one who was so interested in psychopaths; they get kind of tiresome after a while.” Farrell is essentially the slow-burning straight man here, but he does it well enough to give Jason Bateman an exasperated run for his money.
Rockwell’s mania seems more focused and in control than usual, but it’s Walken who really shines. The actor has often said that he removes the punctuation from his scripts before reading them, and Walken’s performance here feels more comma-free than anything he’s done in ages. It’s the kind of work that reminds you why you love what this actor does. (There are plenty of famous faces who pop in briefly to do strange and funny things; try to avoid finding out who they are before you enter the theater.)
If the movie “Seven Psychopaths” hadn’t spent so much time being about a guy writing a movie called “Seven Psychopaths,” the results might have been better. But even if the snake winds up swallowing its own tail, it’s a jolting spectacle you’ll want to keep watching.