There’s a sort of curse that comes with making an exceptional debut film. Good as your first work was, expectations for the next one skyrocket and if you can’t match it, you run the risk of being discarded as a one hit wonder. So we should get this out of the way now: Seven Psychopaths, the second feature from Martin McDonagh, is not the darkly comic masterclass that In Bruges was. It is, however, very good in it’s own merrily insane way.
Psychopaths is about a struggling, potentially alcoholic screenwriter named (start the meta train now) Marty (Colin Farrell) who’s got a great name for his new script – “Seven Psychopaths” – but not much else to flesh it out with. His gets unwanted ideas from his best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who makes a living in a dog kidnapping business with an older, stranger friend named Hans (Christopher Walken). When Billy and Hans inadvertently kidnap the beloved Shih Tzu of a local crime boss (Woody Harrelson), Marty is tangled in their web and finds himself getting some real life experience for his movie as the world around him gets filled with a slew of violent and hilarious psychopaths.
McDonagh does well to not play Seven Psychopaths with the same dark underside as In Bruges. Sure, that was one of the reasons Bruges was such a rich experience, but here the plot is better served by a formula of comedy first, action second, and drama if there’s time leftover. This works because many of the characters here are still just caricatures (a fact that the film readily admits), and so they’re able to entertain us without trying to pull too much weight behind them.
McDonagh’s writing, tack sharp as always, gives the actors some real meat to run with, and Rockwell in particular runs wild. He plays Billy like a man feeding off of a live wire, talking in mile a minute bursts with rampant confidence but just enough vulnerability to make him rounded. When he describes to Marty his vision for the perfect ending of his script, the delivery is so madcap and sincere that no matter how annoying he might be at times, we understand why Marty keeps him around. As Hans, Walken is essentially playing a bizarro version of himself. He’s got all the same mannerisms as a traditional Walken character, but displays them all on the lowest possible output. This muted work takes a bit of getting used to, but by the end of the film he’s one of the main pieces holding all of Seven Psychopath’s many pieces together.
And it is all of those many pieces that keep Seven Psychopaths from being a great movie. There is a feeling as the film moves on that there may just be too much going on. There are just a few too many ideas, too many side plots, and too many characters to keep a strong hold of at all times. In particular, Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko are given more or less nothing to work with as a pair of essentially useless girlfriends. McDonagh has a self deprecating laugh about this when someone tells Marty that he has an inability to write convincing female characters, and while the self awareness is funny, the two characters still make the picture a bit uneven when they’re on screen.
It’s tough to criticize a movie that’s so self aware of it’s own issues, and since Seven Psychopaths is essentially a movie about McDonagh’s personal difficulty with writing a certain kind of movie, some of the faults have to exist in order for the plot to function. But on the whole, Seven Psychopaths still carries the refreshing dialogue and punchy humor of its predecessor, but has enough interesting ideas to be a success in its own right. It’s a different kind of film, and if it is flawed, it’s easier to accept because we know McDonagh isn’t just trying to serve up the same exact meal twice. And when all of its many parts do come together, it’s as satisfying as anything else out there.
Seven Psychopaths is in UK cinemas on December 7th.
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