Although he's one of Ireland's most celebrated playwrights, Martin McDonagh has said he prefers writing movies to plays. He told an interviewer that while he respects the history of films, he has "a slight disrespect for theater." Theater, McDonagh said, "isn't something that's connected to me." Yet it is McDonagh's grounding in the theater, and his flair for clever, literary dialogue, that make his movies an unsurpassed delight.
McDonagh's new film, Seven Psychopaths, is the hysterically funny follow-up to his excellent 2008 In Bruges, and firmly establishes McDonagh as a master of the crime comedy, surpassing by miles, in my view, fellow practitioners like Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. McDonagh's dialogue is so clever you want to see the movie again and quote the funniest lines to your friends. McDonagh's narratives are brutal, but in Seven Psychopaths, the mayhem is handled with a lightness that makes the most violent scenarios comical.
Colin Farrell, who co-starred in In Bruges, plays Marty, a creatively blocked Irish screenwriter living in L.A. He who drinks too much and has an ill-tempered, beautiful girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) and a slightly unhinged but loyal friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell). Billy wants to help Marty write his screenplay, called Seven Psychopaths, based on stories they've heard about various crazy people, like "The Quaker," a devoutly religious man bent on avenging his daughter's murder. Unknown to Marty, Billy is himself a psychopath, and there is more to his story than Marty realizes. In his effort to help Marty, Billy places an ad in the L.A. Weekly soliciting crazy people ("Calling All Psychopaths"). Zachariah (Tom Waits) shows up at Marty's door, stroking a white bunny and telling a lurid tale of a long-ago murder spree.
The rollicking narrative involves a pair of hit men (standard McDonagh dramatis personae) who find themselves at the wrong end of a serial killer's gun; a dog-snatching ring headed by the pious soft-spoken Hans (Christopher Walken), who's trying to raise money to help his ailing wife, Myra (Linda Bright Gray); and a ruthless, neurotic gangster, Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), who's pursuing the kidnappers of his cherished Shih Tzu, Bonny (who is, amusingly, a male). In a tense scene that demonstrates McDonagh's flair for balancing brutality and humor, Charlie holds a gun to the head of his terrified dog-walker, Sharice (Precious' Gabourey Sidibe), whom Charlie holds responsible for losing Bonny. Charlie's gun keeps jamming, explaining to his goons that he keeps the faulty weapon because "I really like the blue handle!"
The plot, with its turns and surprises, is secondary to the movie's true theme, which is the process of screenwriting – the endless, agonizing writing and rewriting. As Marty and Billy trade possible narratives for Marty's screenplay, each story is dramatized in a noir-ish cinematic vignette: the story of the Quaker (Harry Dean Stanton, of course), Zachariah's killing spree, the story of the vengeful Vietnamese priest and the prostitute. Interestingly, much of the dialogue can be seen as McDonagh commenting on his own writing and on the silly conventions of movies themselves (Billy's absurdly choreographed "final shootout"). Critiquing Marty's screenplay, Hans remarks that Marty doesn't know how to write women characters. "Most of the women I know can string together a sentence," says Hans, who's crazy but not stupid. And it's true: the women in this movie (and in In Bruges) are hookers, bitches, killers or victims. The only woman of substance is Myra, who, in the film's grimmest scene, stands up nobly to the murderous Charlie.
McDonagh elicits superb performances from his actors. Rockwell, who is known for stealing every movie he's in, does so here as the well-meaning lunatic who insists that the movie end his way.