Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Seven Psychopaths

Written at the time of the film's release....

The Spanish Have Bull-fights
The French have Cheese
The Irish have Alcoholics
What Do Americans Have...?
Write What You Know

Martin McDonagh, the Irish playwright turned filmmaker, made one of my favorite movies of the last few years, the nastily violent yet good-hearted In Bruges, the story of two hit-men who hide out in the Danish tourist-trap after a botched kill.  One shouldn't anticipate when going to the movies, but this one was such a surprise, one couldn't help thinking about what else he might have up his sleeve.

Well, he must have seen Adaptation., because this one is playing the same trick, but with better results, I think.  Seven Psychopaths is about Marty (Colin Farrell), who's a struggling screenwriter (aren't they all?). His friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is an aspiring actor (aren't they all?) who may or may not have the weirdest "day-job" of any thespian—he's a dog-napper, in partnership with Hans (Christopher Walkenthere's no one like Christopher Walken). Billy is trying to help Marty with his screenplay entitled "Seven Psychopaths," with mixed results. Marty should take the advice of Ernest Hemingway who said "Write what you know." He has enough psychopathy in his life to fill up ninety minutes of screen-time. And if the dog-napping ring wasn't enough, Marty could take some pointers from Charlie (Woody Harrelson), whose shih tzu has just been the latest target of the canine-caper ring and is hell-bent to get his dog back and wreak havoc on the pooch-nappers.

Bizarre. But, it gets even more bizarre when the stories start coming.  he newspaper is full of headlines of the "Jack of Diamonds" vigilante, who kills criminals and leaves that particular card on the bodies. Marty has a few kernels of ideas for his screenplay, which make sidebars in the film but nothing coalesces into a fleshed out screenplay. And then there's the contributions of the folks who answer an ad Billy puts in the paper to help Marty find inspiration, which produces a genuine fiend find in Zachariah (Tom Waits), who recounts a tale of serial vigilante justice in an effort to find his lost love, who inspired the killings.

What is going on here?  It's an interesting mix of truth and fiction, of apocrypha and legend that morphs with the story that the real life director Marty Martin McDonagh is weaving like a tapestry of varying skeins. The story of writing a screenplay is not the most interesting of movie ideas (although that didn't stop Sullivan's Travels, Barton Fink and others from being great movies). But, sometimes the gathering of material can be interesting—the Coen Brothers put a good spin on it by making Fink about an author who chooses to ignore what's happening around him—as it fills the requirements of a quest movie. 

And McDonagh is doing something interesting here (benefiting from a superb cast—with only the top-billed girls Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko going to waste—and quick appearances by Michael Stuhlbarg, Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey SibideCrispin Glover (I swear I saw him), and look for a great performance by Linda Bright Clay) in a way that Adaptation. only touched on with the Robert McKee script-tutorial segments: making a comment for what passes as a screenplay these days.  

Movies have changed as subsequent generations have indulged in the art-form—where films were written and directed from other sources, now movies, by and large, are created by students of film, creating a reflexive diluted (and deluded) quality that does not so much reflect reality, as the movie-realities we're used to. From Leone to Tarantino, Lean to Spielberg, Hawks to Carpenter, Powell to Scorsese, Hitchcock to DePalma, we now see films refracted through the prism of other movies, and what inspired the makers about movies in the first place.  With Seven Psychopaths' emphasis on revenge and revenge fantasies, it's squarely where movies sit right now with both the action genres and its current focus on superhero properties. 

And the character of Billy (Rockwell is brilliant in this) is an actor completely out of touch with reality, staging his life as if it was following a movie-script ("This is supposed to be the Final Shoot-Out") with the internal logic of a movie—but only a current formula-film, created by people who've learned about life from watching movies (as opposed to..ya a life).  Life is messier in real life than what's up on the screen (even one with the violence of Seven Psychopaths)...guns jam, mistakes happen, we forget our promises, and the wrong people die. It's part of why we go to the movies in the first place—to escape the randomness of life, and let artifice try to paint it in such a way to give us perspective...the way dreams are supposed to work.

This is quite a heavy burden to be laying on a quirky film that's frequently laugh out loud funny, and stomach-turning violent in parts. But McDonagh continues to be a fresh voice with an odd perspective that manages to entertain while making one think, simultaneously. Quite unique, that.


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