Black comedies are hard to pull off because it’s extremely difficult to depict graphic, brutal violence and mean for it to be funny. It’s one thing if the violence is over-the-top or tame PG-13 action, but filming executions, assassinations and suicides and expecting the audience to laugh is like throwing in loopy cartoon sound effects over footage of the Holocaust. Somehow, though, Seven Psychopaths manages to do it. Some of the violence is still off-putting (there’s really nothing particularly interesting about watching someone cut their own throat), but the writing is so sharp, the performances are so good and the idea is so kooky that it manages to overcome the genre’s inherent problems. It’s not for everyone, but if there’s a template that needs to be followed for future black comedies, that template is Seven Psychopaths.
Colin Farrell plays Marty, a screenwriter currently in the middle of writing a movie titled “Seven Psychopaths.” The problem is that’s as far as he’s gotten. He doesn’t even know who these supposed psychopaths will be. Fortunately, he has a friend named Billy, played by Sam Rockwell, a local dognapper who wants to help him write the script. He gives him a number of stories that could detail who these psychopaths will be and even goes so far as to stage crazy and often dangerous events that will hopefully help him out of his bind. Eventually, the story begins to write itself when Billy dognaps a Shih Tzu owned by local gangster Charlie, played by Woody Harrelson, who will stop at nothing to get it back, even if it means killing everybody in his way.
The reason Seven Psychopaths works is because, in a way, it’s an absurdist comedy. It takes a relatively simple idea, one that could be (and has been) used in harmless family films and turns it into something that’s darker than dark. It’s kind of like a boy and his dog movie, except the extent the owner will go to get him back involves handing out bullets rather than flyers. Even if the violence is sometimes too extreme for its own good, the idea is too zany to take seriously, and that’s a good thing. But its absurdity does not mean it isn’t clever. The simple idea eventually balloons into something grandiose and observant, about how art imitates life. Although we never see the finished product of the “Seven Psychopaths” screenplay Marty has written, we know exactly how it plays out because it’s taken from the events we’ve just witnessed. It’s very meta in the sense that it knows it’s a movie and toys with the silly, but admittedly amusing, idea that screenwriters aren’t nerds sitting behind their computer pushing their glasses back onto their face, but rather adventurers who take their own real life experiences and put them on the page, no matter how outrageous they may be.
The best self-referential nod comes when Billy and Hans, played by Christopher Walken, are reading through Marty’s script. They remark on how the woman characters are awful and they either have nothing to do or are killed off five minutes after being introduced, a comment on sexism in the cinema. It doesn’t seem like much at first until you think back on the women characters in the movie who show up and disappear like props. These types of moments are what make Seven Psychopaths so enjoyable, the ones that say, “Yes, we know what we’re doing, so sit back, relax and enjoy.” But the ideas themselves only make up a portion of why the movie works. It’s the delivery of these moments by outstanding actors clearly having a good time that raise the movie to the level it’s at. Walken, the eccentric person he is, nails his role and manages to make the smallest, simplest lines bustle with humor, but it’s Sam Rockwell that shines. As a critic friend of mine commented after the movie was over, he’s one of the great character actors working today and is continually snubbed by the Academy for his brilliant performances. Perhaps this year will be his time to shine.
To expect something truly remarkable, though, would be a mistake. Coming from director Martin McDonagh, who knocked it out of the park with his feature length directorial debut, In Bruges, it’s hard not to get excited, but In Bruges this isn’t. This is funnier and, arguably, more clever, but it’s not as deep or emotional as In Bruges and, at the end of the day, narrative and thematic depth and emotional complexity are more important. Still, it’s not necessarily a criticism to say Seven Pyschopaths isn’t as good as In Bruges. Few movies are. It’s still an uproarious good time and, if dark comedies are your thing, it’s not to be missed.
Seven Psychopaths receives 4/5