“Seven Psychopaths” opens with two hitmen on the job engaged in a Tarantino-y rap session. Immediately you think, “Oh no. Two more hitmen on the job engaged in a Tarantino-y rap session.” But then a masked man with a gun in each hand marches up behind them and takes them out. It’s as if the movie has heard us, heeded our story notes and made a revision in the midst of the scene itself.
The second film - after "In Bruges" - from the mega-meta pen of writer/director Martin McDonagh, stars Colin Farrell as Marty Faranan, a stereotypical (on purpose) hard-drinking Irishman living with his underwritten (on purpose) girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) and trying to write a screenplay about, ahem, Seven Psychopaths. Trouble is, he can’t quite figure out who these psychopaths are or what makes them psychotic. Enter his best friend, the slightly screwy if faultlessly loyal Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), who dreams of co-authoring Marty’s script while realizing he must make due with offering helpful suggestions. You know, like putting an ad in the paper for psychopaths to show up at Marty’s door and pitch their stories.
Billy, it would appear, is not so much a psychopath himself as a genial loose cannon, in business with the dapper Han Kieslowski (Christopher Walken). The two men bound about L.A., kidnapping dogs and then returning the dogs unharmed to their well-financed owners and pocketing the reward money. It’s a fine get-rent-money scheme until, as they must, they run afoul of the wrong dog owner – namely, Charlie Costello, played by a stylishly gonzo Woody Harrelson.
It does not take long for Costello to figure out the party responsible for the kidnapping of his precious shih tzu. So Costello, all hot and bothered, goes after the dog-nappers which causes Billy and Hans and Marty, mixed up in this business through no fault of his own, to make an escape and hide out deep in the California desert. Once there, though, the men spend less time fearing for their lives and more time discussing the plot of Marty’s burgeoning script – it’s like a screenwriting retreat without catered food and hotel rooms (though, of course, there is still peyote).
But wait. Is Marty really cooling his heels in the desert and hoping Costello forgets about them? Or is the audience witnessing the unfurling of the screenplay as it being written, perhaps somewhere off screen? Or has Marty become a kind of west coast Caden Cotard, rented out a warehouse and gone about re-creating for his own benefit the story of the Seven Psychopaths that led to “Seven Psychopaths”? I’m not sure, nor am I sure it matters. McDonagh’s real interest is in critiquing the landscape of current cinema, demonstrating how Hollywood uses, abuses and then quickly discards its female characters, worries more about locale than common sense and will happily employ a device as inane as a dog to engineer an entire plot. The end is intentionally herky-jerky, offering an unused rewrite and then a post-credits sequence.
That the film improbably never feels solely like a stunt is a testament to its fine stable of actors. Farrell re-proves he is best suited for twitchy comedy as opposed to hard-hitting drama and Harrelson’s menace is deceivingly clever, though it is truly Rockwell and Walken that shine. (If anyone needs a prequel, it's these two.) Walken can always find empathy in the oddest places, cultivating a zest for life but also a fear of the end. (Plus, his line readings are some of the best of his career. No one in the history of cinema has ever phrased the simplistic “by the way” better. It’s awe-inspiring.) Rockwell turns Billy into someone both unhinged and rooted in the foundation of his friendships with both Hans and Marty. We should, by the end, be leery of him but instead find him endearing, if only because his primary motivation is aiding his best pal. He wants Marty to quit drinking and he wants Marty’s screenplay to be a success.
And even though he yearns to be Marty’s co-writer, he seems content to merely be his muse.