A comic thriller about psychopaths leaves Niall Anderson fearing for his mental balance
Let’s talk about getting shot in the head. Right square in the head so that there’s a sudden arc of blood out the other side, and you fall, not forward, but straight down fast like a puppeteer has just cut your wires. You are now dead, but maybe twitching a bit. An obliging camera will start to pan back from your prone, blood-haloed body until the scene encompasses the hulking figure who’s just done you in. The soundtrack will go quiet for a second or two, because this is what necessarily happens after a murder. But then a strangely soothing pop song will start up from somewhere – say ‘Take It Easy’ by The Eagles – and we see your murderer amble into the next scene with a carefree look on his face. You, on the other hand, are dead.
We have all seen this a hundred times in a hundred movies. The pattern is so exact that even minor variations can change the mood. If the camera lingers on the body rather than pulling away, then we know that this is a particularly significant kill. If, on the other hand, we don’t see a body at all, we know that the killer is a busy man with a lot more killing to do. However the individual scene plays out, the basic scenario is so firmly encoded in the DNA of mainstream film that it takes real talent to find something new to do with it.
Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths is at least partly concerned with this sort of coding, with the way the morals and aesthetics of cinema become part of the way we see the real world – and real-world violence in particular. It is not scolding or baleful in the Haneke style. Nor does it have Tarantino’s self-conscious aestheticism, where knowledge of cinematic convention is the sole essential justification for novel forms of violence. Put very simply, Seven Psychopaths doesn’t know what it is. The directorial finger is occasionally wagged at the failure of imagination that violence represents. The same finger then closes around a trigger and commits merry mayhem. Lots of people get shot in the head.
Colin Farrell plays Marty, a Hollywood screenwriter who’s been promising to deliver a script called Seven Psychopaths for as long as anyone can remember. His best friend Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) would like to help Marty write the script, so he commits himself to a thorough programme of research. This research consists of adopting a psychopath’s guise and killing people. Billy doesn’t seem to realise that wanting to be a psychopath is actually psychopathic behaviour, and Marty – an alcoholic – is too fuddled to put the pieces together. So Billy places a small ad in the local paper asking for other psychos to visit and tell Marty their stories. After all, the script is calling for seven psychopaths.
This is the moment the film tips into outright farce, and the immediate result – a rabbit-toting Tom Waits recounting a life of crime committed for love – is so droll and efficiently vicious that you rather wish the film stayed there. But farce takes a certain mechanical logic to sustain: an understanding that too much silliness is actually the enemy of comedy. It takes restraint, in other words. Seven Psychopaths has none.
What it has instead is Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken), a reformed psychopath, who becomes the hero of the piece simply by refusing to be as violent as everyone else. Walken’s performance here is the familiar one of a Martian slowly learning to speak English: his body language and his words always slightly out of sync, his smile a mirthless flinch. It’s never exactly bad when Walken does this performance, and he’s far from bad here. But the fact he can steal the film with nothing more than an extended schtick tells you something about the other performances.
Seven Psychopaths should by rights be an actor’s movie. The cast is full of differently charismatic performers: Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Michael Pitt – even Farrell when he’s on form. They are all given crisp and violently pithy dialogue to speak, and all of them play it to the hilt. What this means, in practice, is that everyone makes googly eyes all the time and does a lot of shouting. Your enjoyment of Seven Psychopaths will depend entirely on how you feel about seeing talented actors mouth juvenile swears at each other.
And then there’s the whole getting-shot-in-the-head thing. Seven Psychopaths begins and ends with people getting shot in the head. Quite a few people get shot in the head in the middle. The opening dialogue of the film is even about whether shooting someone in the eye – rather than just in the head – represents “overkill”. So when Christopher Walken (from the ne plus ultra of films about getting shot in the head) strolls into the film, the viewer wonders whether a point is being made. But it isn’t. Seven Psychopaths is the glibbest thing you’ll see this year: it starts with a tactical sniper attack of glibness, but ends with a great gaping exit wound of glibness all over your nice clean mood.