Friday, December 7, 2012

‘Seven Psychopaths’ (2012) directed by Martin McDonagh, 4th December 2012

‘Seven Psychopaths’ is a very easy film to analyse as it does all the hard work for you.  Rarely have I seen a film so eager to consciously pick itself apart and explain why it’s ridiculous, silly and half-baked.  This is writer/director Martin McDonagh’s follow up to the transcendant ‘In Bruges’.  On the surface that film is a ‘geezer gangster’ romp in the vein of  Guy Ritchie, but very quickly starts grappling with some big, important themes.  I enjoyed it so much that when I actually visited Bruges earlier this year I was more excited about spotting locations from the film than I was about the medieval architecture.

After I’d taken this trip I found myself wondering what else McDonagh had done, it’d been four years since his last film, what on earth had he been up to?  So it was with some anticipation that I found out he’d been making another film with Colin Farrell to be released later this year.  I don’t really know much about Martin McDonagh, but based on this film I think I can hazard a guess why he's been having so much 'second album trouble'.

‘Seven Psychopaths’ is about a screen-writer living in LA struggling with writer’s block and encountering a series of eccentric weirdoes.  I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to imagine that this roughly aligns with the McDonagh’s actual experiences in LA.  The plot isn’t particularly important, it boils down to ‘guys steal dog, dog’s owner wants dog back’.  What ‘Seven Psychopaths’ is really concerned with is its own writing process. We follow a character writing the film we're watching and struggling how to balance his artistic sensibilities against what an audience wants.  It's almost too obvious to say, but lead character ‘Marty’ is an obvious fictionsuit for the director.

This is basically the director as played by Colin Farrell
Naturally this film doesn’t skimp on the psychopaths, nearly all of the characters are unbalanced in one form or another.  What this means is that the actors have license to ham it up a bit, everyone looks as if they’re having a great time in this.  Sam Rockwell as Billy Bickle comes perilously close to smashing right through the fourth wall.  He’s a character given free reign to pretty much do whatever he wants.  I’ve always admired the way Rockwell can act extremely obnoxiously, yet still somewhere, deep down, retain a kind of wounded sympathy.  Throughout the film, the characters regularly commit atrocious acts, but faced with a hyper-reality, and a gallery of grotesques, we're on their side.

Christopher Walken’s ‘Hans’ is a great creation.  This is Walken playing to his type, slightly off-skewed and dignified, like an alien trying to masquerade as human.  The film is unashamedly emotionally detached, and Walken plays a very stoic and zen-like character, yet if there is a heart to this film, it’s in Walken.  He’s deeply in love with his wife, who’s hospitalised with cancer.  It’s a very sweet relationship, one that seems a little at odds with the arch tone of the rest of the film. 

Christopher Walken doing his thing.
Aside from this, there are a plethora of amazing character actors; Woody Harrelson, Harry Dean-Stanton and Tom Waits standing out.  If you see any of these people on a cinema screen, you know you’re in for something special, even if their appearance is all too brief.  McDonagh gives all three excellent opportunities to play up to their type, it’s some very clever casting.  There’s also a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Crispin Glover, someone who it’s always nice to see on screen.

The only slightly weak link in the cast is Colin Farrell as our lead, Marty.  It’s not a criticism of his acting, rather that his character doesn’t really have much to do other than react to what’s going on around him.  After seeing him in loads of pretty bad movies, when I saw him in ‘In Bruges’ I finally realised why he kept getting cast, and I was expecting a similar calibre of performance here.   But for all the crazy events that he gets swept up in, we never really learn much about him.  His artistic motivations are wrapped up in the film’s slightly awkward criticism of gratuitous violence in film.  From what we can gather he’s become disillusioned with Hollywood clichés in film and wants to make a film where people sit around in the desert: “just human beings talking to each other.”

Sam Rockwell being enjoyably wacky.  He's good at this.
 The problem with criticising a film like this is that it’s all too ready to do the job for you.  At times, this feels like McDonagh undergoing a process of self-flagellation.  People point out that the in-film script of ‘Seven Psychopaths’ doesn’t have any well-rounded female characters, and any that are introduced tend to be brutally killed soon after, and as the script in the film says, so the film we're watching does.  Now, just because a film outlines what’s wrong with it, does than invalidate criticism?  

Towards the mid-way point, ‘Seven Psychopaths’ begins to feel like it’s a collection of vague ideas and sketches for stories haphazardly stitched together.  There are so many subversive moments where what would ‘normally’ happen in a major studio film doesn't happen that the film becomes a compilation of ‘wouldn’t it be neat if…?'s. The net result of all this self-referential dialogue, dream sequences and films within films is that we don’t particularly care how the film we're watching ends up.   But, of course in this film it’s difficult to work out whether or not elements in it are consciously half-baked to make a point about other films and screenplays, or just genuinely not quite there. 

Frankly you begin to get a headache.

Walken and Farrell in a dream-sub-film-script-writing meta sequence.
All this fourth wall nudging and self referencing is on one hand very funny, and on the other a little off-putting.  McDonagh writes great dialogue and has a perfectly developed sense of the absurd.  The narrative freedom that the structure and tone provides gives him the perfect excuse to be unpredictable.  Characters react to events in bizarre ways, almost consciously screwing with established rules of film-making and storytelling.

The flipside is that the film for all its irreverence, has a bitter and cynical heart.  It’s a critique of things in modern film that I presume McDonagh genuinely finds annoying and boring.  I agree with a lot of his arguments, the points the film makes about use of gratuitous violence, coincidence and the role of women in film are all valid.  It's just that the film tends to be a little too smug in its cleverness.   It’s as if McDonagh is lashing out at his employers, saying, in effect “I’m too smart for this crap”.  This is unattractive, and it should be noted that while the film rails against a lot of narrative devices and problematic cliches, the solutions it presents are pretty damn vague.

Tom Waits and some rabbits.
‘Seven Psychopaths’ is compelling enough while you're watching it, you’re never sure which filmic convention they’re going to ignore, or what bizarre turn the plot is going to take.  Afterwards the whole exercise feels a bit hollow, perhaps because there’s no emotional core here.  The nearest filmic comparison I can think of would be Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s ‘Adaptation’ which features a similarly fictionalised version of the author struggling with writer’s block.  ‘Adaptation’ uses many of the same tricks that ‘Seven Psychopaths’ does, yet manages to also make us care about the plight of its leads.

Disappointingly, this is a big step down from ‘In Bruges’.  That film dealt with big universal things: redemption, revenge, guilt, grief and the afterlife.  ‘Seven Psychopaths’ is more concerned about exposing silly writing clichés.  It’s very much the equivalent of a band's ‘difficult second album’.  The first album is written before the band are big, the songs have been developed at the band’s own pace with not much pressure and are about things people can identify with.  The second album tends to be written on the road, and invariably becomes about the travails of being famous or pressure to perform.  ‘Seven Psychopaths’ is Martin McDonagh’s difficult second album.  I hope writing and directing it has at the very least cured him of his writer’s block.

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