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Seven Psychopaths – Martin McDonagh. Anarchic scabrous, black satire



Seven PsychopathsMartin McDonagh

The spirit of Joseph Heller (Catch-22) haunts this anarchic, scabrous black satire. And it doesn’t get any better than that. Heller took the established but contradictory conventions and attitudes to war as premises and then with a rigorous, implacable logic followed them through to a reductio ad absurdum conclusion: thereby demonstrating not only the falsity of the premises but the lethal absurdity inherent within them.

That In Bruges Writer-Director Martin McDonagh’s more modest targets here are the established but equally contradictory conventions and inherent values of Hollywood does not detract from the power of this deliciously scathing, weirdly quirky, gratuitously funny and gratuitously violent movie. The spirit of anarchic rebellion in Seven Psychopaths, may use the easy targets of Hollywood’s preoccupation with marketed violence and fetishized weapons, but it hints and nags away at the dark, disturbing reality that underlies them. You laugh from the gut; and then your mind feels uneasy.

McDonagh’s writing is clever, witty, intelligent and funny. There is a real possibility, to be savoured; that if, as it should, it wins an Oscar for best original screenplay it will do so only because the members of the Academy haven’t really understood it.

And all the actors are on board: brilliant performances all round testify to the fact that Messrs Farrell, Rockwell, Walkern, Harrelson and a superbly ambiguous Tom Waits et al – all get it. You can’t just deliver the lines for this stuff – you have to see the absurdity, feel the contempt, to get the right timing to let the humour play. It’s a bit like the film of Catch-22: a long line of A-list actors delivered their lines well enough; but it took Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould as Hawkeye and Trapper in Mash, a completely different film (released at the same time), to capture the true anarchic spirit of Yossarian and the other characters in Heller’s book.

A shocking opening scene in Psychopaths sets the tone for what follows and introduces us to our first psychopath – a masked vigilante emabarked on a mission to seek out and kill serial killers: a serial killer of serial killers as we may say. A plot thread of a bunch of dog-knappers lightening the over-filled pockets of wealthy doting owners allows McDonagh, superbly supported by his actors, to spin and twist the characters so that we really have no idea who’s going to do what next.

McDonagh has written a screenplay about an alcoholic screenwriter ‘Marty’ (Farrell) ‘writing’ a screenplay for which he only has a title Seven Psychopaths. He is aided by Billy (Rockwell) an off-the-wall fellow member of a dog-knapping gang, leaderless but sort of deferring to Hans (Walkern) who manages to return a dog they’ve ‘napped’ with such sincere self-deprecation that grateful owners give him more than the stated reward.

McDonagh then introduces us to each of 7 psychopathic characters through Billy operating as Marty’s muse. Each of these characters is nuttier than the last including a wonderfully dead-pan Tom Waits as Zacharia, a one-time serial killer who has fetched up on Marty’s doorstep thanks to an ad for psychopaths Billy helpfully put in on Marty’s behalf. Zacharia had once been teamed up with Maggie (Amanda Mason Warren) on a killing spree but she had gone solo following his squeamishness at the brutality of her methods. Zacharia agrees to be one of Marty’s psychopaths on a condition to which Marty agrees but which comes back to bite him.

Each of the eponymous nut-jobs proves to be more off-the-wall than the last and McDonagh draws them together in his actual film through fictional Marty’s development of his fictional screenplay. Almost as if the characters are making the plot up as they go along it twists and turns so that for example seven turns out in fact to be six.

Not wanting to make just another violent Hollywood movie, Marty discusses with Billy his aesthetic aspiration to give his movie a spiritual dimension with one of his psychopaths being a Buddhist. Billy is dismissive of this and champions the all-action, super-violent conventions of commercial Hollywood. Billy’s vision looks only too likely to prevail when they kidnap hoodlum Charlie’s (Harrelson) Shih Tzu thus setting up the search to destroy theme of the second half of the movie.

This could all have become a bit tedious and contrived but for McDonagh’s surreal, sparky dialogue and surefooted direction which keeps the non-sense bubbling along nicely: plus those performances – Farrell is good, Rockwell surprisingly so and Walkern at times simply sublime. Consistent with the conventions being parodied, the women in Psychopaths are merely token: Abbie Cornish being wasted as Marty’s girlfriend Kaya. Indeed Hans, having read Marty’s script takes him to task for writing lousy parts for women.

Wonderfully disreputable fun. Don’t go if ‘bad’ language or stylised violence bothers you: otherwise ride with the laughs – you can feel guilty afterwards. If you do go – don’t miss the beginning and don’t leave before the credits end. Nuff said.

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