Unlike his debut feature, In Bruges, the title of prolific playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh's hilarious, ingenious, and sneakily profound second movie, Seven Psychopaths, gives you a good idea of what you're in for. There are indeed seven psychopaths, played by the usual suspects — actors such as Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, and Tom Waits.
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But then it gets complicated. Storylines multiply, the distinctions blur between what is imagined and what is real, and allusions to movies pile up as rapidly as the body count. McDonagh weaves together an intratextual bonanza of references to other gangster movies and to cinema in general while indulging in a self-reflexive critique of the creative process and the nature of storytelling. So it's a bit more challenging than, say, The Expendables 2.
"It has its little reference here, its little in-joke there," McDonagh said when I interviewed him at the Toronto International Film Festival. "It has flashbacks, and you don't know quite where we're going to, and it's broken up into city and desert and setup and payoff. It has a wilder kind of structure to it, which makes it seem like no structure at all."
The film starts out, after an amusing allusion to Pulp Fiction, with one of the film's non-psychopaths: a screenwriter named, probably not coincidentally, Martin (Colin Farrell). He's having trouble finishing his new script — he has only a title, Seven Psychopaths. His best friend, a De Niro–esque, unemployable actor named Billy Bickle, offers Martin unsolicited advice on his project.
"I had Taxi Driver in my mind, but more Mean Streets," McDonagh said, acknowledging the Scorsese reference. "It's the character dynamic: two alpha-male types, Martin and Billy, and how the balance shifts."
It takes a third character, Billy's employer, a dapper dog-napper provocatively named Hans Kieslowski (Walken), to instigate that change. He makes the mistake of grabbing Bonnie (allusion unknown), a Shih Tzu belonging to Charlie (Harrelson), a ruthless gangster. Charlie vows to hunt down the culprits, and Martin, Billy, and Hans head for the desert, to escape Charlie and his henchman — and finish the screenplay.
I asked McDonagh if he considered Martin's idea of concluding his script with a long, Antonioni-esque philosophical discussion among the three men in the wilderness as a way of ending his own movie.
"I was thinking about that for a while," he said. "But when I got to that page in the script, I thought it had to pay off. It was a question of how many pages and how much screen time do you devote to not following the conventions of a film. And in an earlier cut, there were probably 20 more minutes of just talking in the desert and nothing happening, and it just really dragged. You can kind of fuck around a little bit with the conventions of a Hollywood-type film. But if you start it that way, you've got to have the payoff."
And pay off it does. But not before redemption beckons from the unlikely source of Walken, as his Hans Kieslowski ponders the meaning of violence, revenge, death, and more fully developed female characters.