Written and directed by: Martin McDonagh
Seven Psychopaths is a weirdly titled and weirdly marketed film. While the phrase Seven Psychopaths comes up repeatedly in the movie, the identity of the seven is ambiguous at best. I, for one, had to google which characters they are. While the film numbers/labels most of the psychopaths as they appear, unless I missed it, it skips 5 and 6. To further complicate matters, the film’s poster promoted two actors (in a list of seven) as having starring roles who barely appear in the film and certainly don’t rank amongst the psychopaths (why these actors and not the more prominent Linda Bright Clay and Long Nguyen are named on the box is a mystery to me).
Seven Psycopaths can thus leave viewers with a sense that they missed something upon viewing it. I won’t call, that a flaw, however, as it fits with the film’s meta-qualities. The film’s protagonist is an Irish writer named Marty (Colin Farrel) who is working on a screenplay called The Seven Psychopaths. While writer/director Martin McDonagh insists he and Marty are not one in the same, that is undeniably an idea viewers are at least encouraged to entertain. Marty (like McDonagh) wanted to write a movie about psychopaths. He didn’t want to water anything down, but he didn’t want to promote violence either. How could he do that?
McDonagh (or at least Marty) didn’t quite know. As such, the film is forced to be a montage of his “draft” ideas. Two of the seven psychopaths are characters in stories, within the story. Two more, emerge from an anecdote told to Marty when he is crowdsourcing ideas.
The spirit behind Seven Psychopaths seems to be that McDonagh likes writing eccentric characters. One of the seven (Tom Waits), walks around with a bunny. Another (Woody Harrelson) is a notorious gangster driven by his deep love for his shih tzu. This spirit, however, gets betrayed midway through the movie.
As part of McDonagh’s approach, he has Marty comment to friends Hans (Christopher Walken) and Billy (Sam Rockwell), that he doesn’t want his screenplay to end violently, but instead to conclude with a long philosophical conversation between its characters. Billy, a Gob Bluth-like (but darker) man-child laughs at the suggestion and accuses Marty of wanting to make “French” (aka artistic) movies. In this moment Seven Psychopaths announces its intention to defy genre-conventions, but it also abandons its ambitions. Rather than being a story of Seven Psychopaths, it makes clear that it’s the story of three psychopaths. And while I admire McDonagh’s commitment to making his not a story about violence, by abandoning the film’s initial premise of absurdist chaos, he makes the violence that happens from that moment onwards all the more significant.
The positive side to McDonagh’s “three friends go to talk in the desert” twist, however, is that it puts a spotlight on Billy, allowing a character with a number of repulsive traits to undergo an atypical hero’s arc. McDonagh is no psychologist, but he is certainly bold in his imagining of what non-heartless psychopaths are like. McDonagh’s psychopaths are, to varying degrees, not without moral codes, but their codes miss the forest for the trees. Billy’s darkness comes out in the performance of his duty to Marty while Tom Wait’s character follows and takes the eye-for-an-eye principle quite literally. Billy’s conception of the goodlife is one meant for anti-hero comic books. He is not an anti-social person, but he also craves dramatic shootouts. Through bringing this comic book anti-hero together with the more realistic Marty, McDonagh created a friendship, that though deeply disturbing, resonates like few others.
Around its midway point Seven Psychopaths labels two psychopaths on screen at once (“#7…and #1”). When I first saw this scene I misunderstood it, thinking that “#1” referenced a different character than it did. How one interprets this scene shapes, what movie one thinks one is seeing, and perhaps is make-or-break for Seven Psychopath’s overall enjoyability. If the character I mistakenly thought was “ #1” was indeed a psychopath, then Seven Psychopaths would have retained its chaotic, black comedic feel. But psychopath #1 is not that character, and therefore the scene establishes the film’s actual trajectory: It is a character arc: a perverse hero’s journey.
Seven Psychopaths is an enjoyable and unusual film. Nonetheless, I don’t think it quite lived up to its provocative title. Marty, Hans, Billy and Charlie the mob boss make for an excellent main cast, but between them there are three psychopaths, not seven. And in taking on the challenge of understanding the psychopathic psyche, as Marty realizes, you can’t have too many case studies.